The family as a social construction

108The family as a social
The family as a social
The structure of the family should be regarded as socially
constructed, as the product of the society the family belongs
to. This meant that it was not possible to see the family as
something ‘natural’ or as having an existence prior to society.
Rather, the family should be seen as ‘socially mediated down
to its innermost structure’. Horkheimer and his colleagues
felt that it was not possible to regard family life as a kind of
‘haven in a heartless world’, because the structures of the
surrounding society would inevitably affect whatever went
on within family life. It was therefore impossible to pursue
emancipation or equality within the family if the surrounding
society was characterised by oppressive and unequal social
relations: ‘There can be no emancipation of the family
without the emancipation of the whole’ (Frankfurt Institute
for Social Research 1973, p. 145).
The contradictory relationship
between family life and
The Frankfurt sociologists saw the relationship between
family life and the surrounding society in modern capitalist
societies as profoundly contradictory. On the one hand, they
regarded the family as an essential part of the social order in
that it adapted every individual to conform to authority. The
family, wrote Horkheimer:
. . . as one of the most important formative agencies,
sees to it that the kind of human character emerges
which social life requires, and gives this human being
in great measure the indispensable adaptability for a
specific authority oriented conduct on which the
existence of the bourgeois order largely depends.
(1982, p. 98)
Like Engels, Horkheimer recognised the significance of the
basic economic inequality between men on the one hand and
women and children on the other. If men are the sole
breadwinners, argued Horkheimer, this ‘makes wife, sons and
daughters, even in modern times, “his”, puts their lives in
large measure into his hands, and forces them to submit to
his order and guidance’ (p. 105). However, he went on to point
out the permanent socialising effect this had on children.
The development of obedience to the authority of one’s
own father was a preparation for obedience to the authority
of the state and one’s employer. Horkheimer also saw family
life as imposing conformity on men, in that the dependence
of their wife and children made them more conservative
about radical social change that might undermine their
ability to support their families. In this sense the nuclear
family can be seen as an integral part of modern capitalist
society, and Horkheimer’s perspective was similar to that of
the functionalist theorists, who also saw the family as
performing an essential socialising function.
On the other hand, however, Horkheimer and his
colleagues also pointed out that there was a fundamental
opposition between the logic of family life, the principles
governing its operation and that of a market-based capitalist
society. Family life is not based on economic exchange or the
rational pursuit of self-interested gain, but rather on relations
of kinship and emotional bonds of love, altruism and care.
This makes the family essentially a pre-capitalist, feudal
institution because ‘it has held fast to an irrational moment in
the midst of an industrial society which aims at rationality, the
exclusive domination of the principle that all relations must be
calculable’ (Frankfurt Institute for Social Research 1973,
p. 134). In this sense, the ‘bourgeois family’ is an impossibility,
because the logic of rationally self-interested individualism
contradicts the apparent irrationality of family life.
Positive and negative aspects of
familial ‘irrationality’
This familial ‘irrationality’ has both positive and negative
aspects. Its positive sense is that family life allows the expression
of emotions that otherwise have little place in a rational,
calculating capitalist society, where the measure of all things is
economic gain and loss. Its negative aspect is that relations of
domination and oppression continue to exist, especially of the
father over the rest of the family, but also generally of males
over females. In relation to the capitalist society beyond the
family, the unpaid domestic labour of women is above all an
irrational feature of family life, because it operates outside the
rules of the market, where work is exchanged for money.
Undermining patriarchal power
The separation of work and home has therefore led to an
undermining of patriarchal power, because it was through
control over the primary means of economic production—
land—that fathers exercised their power. The spread of wage
labour meant increased ability for younger family members
to achieve economic independence, and the Frankfurt School
theorists saw this as the beginning of the end for patriarchy,
which would increasingly be ‘presented with the reckoning
. . . for the economic injustice in the exploitation of domestic
labour within a society which in all other respects obeyed the
laws of the market’ (Frankfurt Institute for Social Research
1973, p. 137).
The family in permanent crisis
All the various crises in the family—the changing relations
between men and women, increasing divorce and the focus on
children’s rights—are in fact permanent crises because they
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can be traced back to this fundamental opposition, in which
the market is destined to be the winner. Marriage, the
Frankfurt School theorists argue, will shrink into ‘a relationship
of exchange serving purely practical ends’, women as a group
‘exploit’ their monopoly over child-bearing ‘to gain a certain
security … [in] the institution of divorce’, and individuals
‘become interchangeable here too as they do in business life,
where one leaves a position as soon as a better one offers itself’
(Frankfurt Institute for Social Research 1973, p. 139).
Weber’s theory of the family
Max Weber is not usually known as a family sociologist, and
there has never been a ‘Weberian’ approach to the family.
However, he dealt with a number of important issues
concerning family life that anticipated many later debates
and are still to be improved upon. Perhaps the most important
contribution that Weber (1978) made was his general
conceptualisation of family life. Rather than treating ‘the
family’ as a pre-existing entity that acts upon or is acted upon
by surrounding social structures, Weber saw family structure
itself as the product of prevailing social, economic and
political conditions. He opposed Engels’ evolutionary
approach, preferring to identify the particular constellations
of social circumstances that produced different types of
family structure throughout history and in different cultures.
Instead of being concerned about the relative size of ‘the
family’ and whether it was extended or nuclear, Weber
focused on the changing size and political position of the
household and the kin group in relation to wider political
structures such as the state. His analysis also established the
centrality of family life to the development of other social
institutions such as the state and the economy.
The structure of family life
Weber analysed family life in terms of two main structures—
the household and the kin group—and saw what others term ‘the
family’ as produced by the interaction of these two structures.
The household is the group sharing a roof and meals, but it
need not coincide with ‘the family’. Husbands and wives, for
example, may eat and sleep in separate households, and
households often contain members with no kinship relationship.
The kin group is the larger network of those related by ‘blood’,
either biological or socially defined (e.g. in-laws).
Weber argued that, in addition to being an economic unit,
this wider kin group has often been a political unit, serving to
organise military protection, revenge and expansion. This
control over the means of violence often gave the kin group a
clear advantage over the household. In situations where
military activity became the province of specialised elite
groups of warriors, and eventually the state, this wresting of
control over violence and military activity from kin groups
had the effect of strengthening the household.
Neither the household nor the kin group arose prior to the
other and, unlike most family sociologists, Weber argued that
there was a power relation between them. Rather than seeing the
household or nuclear family as benignly nestled within a wider,
more diffuse network of extended kin, Weber argued that the
household and the kin group were different, often opposing,
forms of organising marriage, sexuality and inheritance. The
conflict between household and the wider kin group would
then also interact in varying ways with surrounding economic
and political structures, which may provide more or less support
for the household head, kin group leaders or individuals within
households. For Weber, an important aspect of this power
relation was that the kinship group protected the interests
of individuals within households in conflict with the interests of
the household patriarch. Exactly how this operated depended
on the given economic and political conditions.
Sex and marriage
For Weber, marriage was essentially a way of distinguishing
between legitimate and illegitimate sexual unions. This
distinction reflected on the relationship itself between
husband and wife, and on the social position of the children
produced from that relationship. Marriage distinguishes
between those relationships approved of by the wider kin
group and those requiring revenge or some form of
atonement. It also identifies which children will be treated as
equal members of the wider community—village, kin group,
religious group, ethnic group—and which will not be
granted the full benefits of legitimate community identity.
Weber saw marriage as a similar form of management of
female sexuality to prostitution, differing in degree rather
than in kind. Women’s sexuality has often been exchanged
by male household heads for other services, and marriage in
general is a form of exchange of sexual for economic resources.
Weber regarded prostitution itself as possibly the more
liberal version of women’s sexual exploitation, because the
economic exchange is made explicit and put to some extent
under the control and management of women themselves.
The historical development of kin
group and household
Weber stressed that no one form of family life can be regarded
as more ‘primitive’ than or prior to another. Rather than there
being a ‘basic’ nuclear family with various ‘extensions’, he
argued that households arose with the development of
agriculture and were not present in nomadic hunting societies.
The relationship of the household to the kin group was
dependent on the particular constellation of political conditions
prevailing in the local community, village or region. Because
the kin group was the only basis for the organisation of
hunting and fighting, its position would rise and fall depending
on the role played by those activities. Where a community was
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heavily dependent on collective hunting or engaged in constant
feuding and warfare, the kin group’s power would rise in
relation to the household. When these functions were either
taken over by a more specialised group—trained warriors or
the state—or made redundant by the sudden outbreak of
peace, this would weaken the kin group’s position and
correspondingly reinforce that of the patriarchal household
and its male head. This was what happened in Western
Europe, and less so in Eastern Europe, China and India.
Randall Collins (1986) pointed out that Weber saw two
stages in the development of family life in Western Europe:
1. the decline of the kin group relative to the patriarchal
household (patrimonial domination)
2. a reduction in the significance of the patriarchal
household in relation to the bureaucratic state and
industrial capitalist production.
Because the household became the basis of social,
economic and political organisation, the wealthier a
household was the larger it would be, including apprentices,
servants, slaves and soldiers. Weber referred to this type of
society as being characterised by patrimonial domination.
The members of households linked by kinship ties had
shrunk to that of the nuclear family, but the size of a
household would be as large as its wealth permitted. As
Collins summed it up, Weber showed:
. . . that the dominant households of the societies
immediately preceding our own were large precisely
because the more remote links of kinship were now
forgotten or at least supplemented by relationships
that were not based on kinship. (1986, p. 289)
The accelerated development of the state and bureaucracy
from about the 16th century onwards gradually broke down
the power of patrimonial households. Western European
states increasingly separated their own administration from
that of the family-centred household, attempting to free
bureaucracy from family ties and obligations. With the
development of factory production, economic activity also
came to be increasingly separated from family life. In
addition, the state gradually monopolised the means of
violence, making individuals less dependent on their
households for security and protection, and this also
weakened the authority of patriarchal household heads.
Functionalism—the nuclear
family as the foundation of
Functionalist analyses of family life address three main
1. What are the functions of the family? Answers to this
question deal with the contributions made by the family
to the maintenance of the social system. It is assumed
that society has certain functional prerequisites or basic
needs that must be met if it is to survive and operate
efficiently. The family is examined in terms of the
degree to which it meets these functional prerequisites.
2. What are the functional relationships between the family and
other parts of the social system? It is assumed that there
must be a certain degree of fit, integration and harmony
between the parts of the social system if society is
going to function efficiently. For example, the family
must be integrated to some extent with the economic
system. This question is examined in detail in a later
section when the relationships between the family and
industrialisation are considered.
3. What are the functions performed by an institution or a part
of society for the individual? In the case of the family,
this question considers the functions of the family for
its individual members.
Primary socialisation and
personality stabilisation—Talcott
For Parsons the ‘basic and irreducible’ functions of the family
were the ‘primary socialization of children’ and the
‘stabilization of the adult personalities of the population of
the society’ (1955a, p. 16). Primary socialisation is simply
the development of a child’s personality, which takes place
within the family, as opposed to secondary socialisation,
which takes place later in settings beyond the family, such as
the peer group and the school. Parsons saw primary
socialisation as the arena where a child internalises the culture
of the surrounding adult society and where the structure of
their personality is established. He suggested that families
‘are “factories” which produce human personalities’ (1955a,
p. 16), and thought that there was no other plausible social
arena where these functions could be fulfilled.
The central function of the family for its adult members,
in contrast, was the stabilisation of adult personalities.
Marriage and family life are seen as providing emotional
security and support, and a haven from the stress and
demands of working life. Child-rearing, too, provides an
outlet for parents to express the child-like aspects of their
personalities in a safe and non-threatening context, by
participating in their children’s activities.
The transfer of functions
Parsons believed that a number of the family’s functions had,
in modern industrial society, been transferred to other social
institutions. Institutions such as businesses, political parties,
schools and welfare organisations now specialised in
functions formerly performed by the family. In itself, Parsons
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argued, the family does not play a significant role in society—
its members all contribute to social life as individuals rather
than as part of the family (1955a, p. 16). This did not mean,
however, that Parsons saw the family as being in decline, but
simply as more specialised:
. . . the family is more specialized than before, but not
in any general sense less important, because society is
dependent more exclusively on it for the performance
of certain of its vital functions. (1955a, pp. 9–10)
For Parsons as well as later functionalist sociologists of the
family, such as Ronald Fletcher (1966), while it is true that
the family has changed, this is seen as a process of adaptation
to a changed social environment, rather than a process of
Feminism and the ‘antisocial
Marxist writers on the family generally acknowledge that
the subordinate position of women within family life is an
important aspect of what they see as its harmful effects.
However, the emphasis is on the relationship between the
family and capitalism, and its effects on women tend to be
seen as derived from the more primary economic inequality
between capitalists and wage labourers. The feminist analysis
of the family began with a use of Marxist concepts to explain
and analyse the way in which they believe the family leads to
the specific exploitation of women.
Margaret Benston, for example, argued that:
The amount of unpaid labor performed by women is
very large and very profitable to those who own the
means of production. To pay women for their work,
even at minimum wage scales, would involve a
massive redistribution of wealth. At present, the
support of the family is a hidden tax on the wage
earner—his wage buys the labor power of two people.
(1972, p. 127)
To give an Australian example, Duncan Ironmonger has
estimated that the inclusion of the labour involved in
household production in 1975/6 would have boosted Australia’s
GDP by 48 per cent, and that ‘Australian households
demanded and supplied more labour for their own purposes in
production within the household than they supplied to the
whole of the rest of the economy’ (Ironmonger 1989, p. 8).
Echoing the Frankfurt School’s arguments, Benston
suggested that:
The nuclear family is a valuable stabilizing force in
capitalist society. Since the production which is done
in the home is paid for by the husband–father’s
earnings, his ability to withhold his labor from the
market is much reduced. (1972, p. 125)
The family can thus be regarded as performing a number
of important functions for employers and the capitalist
class—including feeding and maintaining the current cohort
of workers, as well as producing the next generation of
workers—at little to no cost.
Such accounts of family life tend to overlook the great
variety of family forms across cultures and classes and over
time. However, there is an important strand in feminist
thought on family life that takes greater account of variations
in family life. Juliet Mitchell (1966), for example, argued
that the family should not be understood as a unified entity,
but in terms of the separate structures from which it is
composed and which can be combined in various patterns in
differing cultures or at different points in history. The
underlying structures that she saw as manifesting themselves
in a condensed fashion in particular forms of ‘the family’ are
those of production, reproduction, sexuality and the
socialisation of children.
Similarly, Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh (1982) said
that more attention should be paid to the diversity of family
and household forms, making it difficult to pin down what
the functions or social role of ‘the’ family actually are. They
also highlighted the effect of attaching too much importance
to the family, because ‘The family ideal makes everything
else seem pale and unsatisfactory’ (p. 77). The idealisation of
family life, they wrote:
… has made the outside world cold and friendless,
and made it harder to maintain relationships of
security and trust except with kin. Caring, sharing
and loving would all be more widespread if the
family did not claim them for its own. (1982, p. 80)
An additional problem is that the idealised view of the
family is a barrier to perceiving its darker side, including
domestic violence, rape within marriage and child abuse (see
below, pp. 142–3).
Domestic violence
The tendency to idealise the family has made it difficult to
perceive and analyse its less pleasant aspects, such as
physically abusive relationships within family life. On
average, in any given couple the male is usually physically
stronger than his female partner, and this can play an
important role in the power relations within family life.
From the 1970s onwards, it has been primarily feminist
researchers who have drawn attention to the ways in which
domestic violence and child abuse are, in fact, quite
widespread throughout society, rather than being simply a
marginal and unusual aspect of family relations.
The concept of domestic violence encompasses a wide
range of behaviour. It was defined in 1991 by the National
Committee on Violence against Women as ‘behaviour
adopted by the man to control his victim which results in
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physical, sexual and/or psychological damage, forced social
isolation, or economic deprivation, or behaviour which leaves
a woman living in fear’ (cited in Easteal 1994, p. 86).
Michael Gilding has pointed out that ‘there is an
unambiguous gender pattern in domestic violence’ (1997,
p. 184). Men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators and
women are overwhelmingly the victims. Research into
domestic violence conducted since the 1970s has been
significant in that it has shown domestic violence to be
prevalent in all social spheres, in apparently ‘happy’ marriages
and across all social classes. The class differences, Gilding
emphasises, lay more in the response to violence. Middleclass wives would first consult a lawyer, whereas working-class
wives would more immediately call the police—if they took
any action at all (Gilding 1997, p. 186).
Gilding summarises the feminist explanation of domestic
violence as having the following three key components:
1. Gender socialisation. It is not just a question of physical
strength, because one can use weapons to inflict
violence, but more the greater emphasis on the use of
violence to respond to problems among males (p. 187).
2. The effect of economic inequality. ‘Men’s control over the
larger part of the household income, especially when
there were children, limited women’s capacity to
bargain or leave’ (p. 188).
3. Implicit social acceptance. The response to victims of
domestic violence can often be unsympathetic or
ambivalent. This is based on an underlying presumption
of male dominance over females.
Overall, the feminist argument is that family life is
inevitably coloured by broader gender inequality, which
underpins the threat of some form of violence in all women’s
lives, to a greater or lesser extent. British sociologist Liz Kelly
has suggested that ‘sexual violence exists in most women’s
lives’, but also that ‘the form it takes, how women define
events, and its impact on them at the time and over time
varies’ (1987, p. 52).
It is often assumed that a single type of family is the
dominant one in any particular era. Whether the modern
family is regarded as nuclear, modified extended,
modified elementary or dispersed extended, the
assumption has been that only one type of family lies at the
centre of people’s experiences in modern industrial societies.
However, as Robert and Rhona Rapoport (1982) have
argued, culture, religion and ethnicity constitute an important
dimension of diversity in family forms. In Australia, for
example, there are differences between families of Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander, Anglo-Saxon, Southern European,
Middle-Eastern and Asian origin, not to mention other ethnic
groups. Lifestyle differences related to religion may also be an
important element of diversity.
Australian family sociologists have paid increasing
attention to the family patterns of different cultural and
ethnic groups. They have been concerned to establish the
extent to which Australian social institutions such as
education and the law might assume a particular family
structure, thus disadvantaging different family forms, as
well as whether the family relationships typical of the
societies of origin of immigrants have been modified within
the Australian context. Thus sociologists have compared
ethnic families in Australia with families in their country of
origin and also with other Australian families.
Although some changes in the traditional family life of
these groups might be expected, the degree to which they
change could provide important evidence about the theory of
increasing family diversity. If it is true that cultural
diversity is becoming increasingly accepted in Australia,
then these families could be expected to change little. If,
however, the families of ethnic minorities are becoming more
similar to those of other members of Australian society, family
diversity might ultimately be based more on responses to
general social and economic conditions than on ethnic
differences. Apart from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples, there are many different ethnic groups in Australia;
this chapter examines two—Greeks and Lebanese Muslims—
as examples of the impact of cultural diversity on family form.
Aboriginal family life
There are a variety of family forms among Aboriginal people
themselves, characterised primarily by the opposition
between traditional family structure and the degree to which
that has been modified through contact with Western
culture and social institutions.
Rural and urban Aboriginal
family life
Although family and kinship remain a central feature of
Aboriginal social organisation, much of the traditional
family system has been changed, sometimes dramatically, by
contact with European culture and social institutions—often
by the deliberate intervention of white Australian state
agencies and religious bodies.
Two of the most striking contrasts between the traditional
Aboriginal marriage pattern and that of Western Europeans are:
1. the possibility of polygyny
2. the organisation and control of marriage by an
extended kin group, particularly the betrothal of
women at a young age, frequently to much older men.
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Both of these features of the traditional marriage system
have been radically transformed since European settlement,
partly under the onslaught of Christian missionaries,
and partly as a result of contact and integration with
European culture and social institutions. Young Aboriginal
women themselves, to the extent that they are influenced by
Western ideologies of individualism, freedom and the notion
of love as the basis for marriage, now tend to resist their
family’s attempts to keep them to the marriage rules. They
marry the man of their choice, perhaps a non-Aboriginal
man, or avoid marriage altogether. There is certainly little
tolerance among Aboriginal women of polygyny, which now
survives only in remote regions.
These changes are partly a response to contact with
Western culture, and partly the consequence of changed
social relations within the family resulting from social
institutions such as the school. Much of the control that
traditional Aboriginal families were able to exert over their
daughters was based on a tight regulation of their physical
movement and social contacts. Girls often spent time with
their intended husband and would usually be living with
him before menarche. Ideally, by the time they struck
adolescence, stated Burbank, ‘their sexual impulses had been
directed toward men deemed appropriate husbands by their
society’ (1988, p. 115). However, participation in schooling
radically transformed relations between young Aborigines
and their families. It provided a forum for mixed-sex social
interaction free from familial supervision, a peer group
whose influence could outweigh that of the family and the
practical means for arranging liaisons, with peers carrying
messages and helping to evade adult scrutiny (pp. 104–6).
The transition to a more Western marriage pattern has
resulted in the greater freedom of Aboriginal women to
choose their partners, but that has been only one of its effects.
Bell and Ditton point out that women are no longer protected
by the network of reciprocal obligations that characterised
the traditional marriage system, and ‘many women express
horror at the incidence of rape and violent abuse of women
which sometimes occurs today’ (1980, p. 17). Polygynous
marriage also enabled relations of mutual support among
co-wives, whereas monogamous marriage makes a wife more
dependent on her husband, although this dependence is often
tempered by the presence of other female kin in the
Aboriginal family change in
Adelaide, 1966–80—Fay Gale
Many of the processes of change occurring in Aboriginal
family life through increased contact with white Australian
society have been well illustrated in a study of the migration
of Aborigines in the city of Adelaide. Gale (1981) found that
the movement from a rural to an urban context had a number
of significant consequences for the structure and dynamics of
Aboriginal family life:
• Increased intermarriage. Gale found that mixed
marriages in Adelaide increased from 26.6 per cent of
all Aboriginal marriages in 1966 to 57.9 per cent in
1980. Non-mixed marriages correspondingly decreased
from 73.4 per cent in 1966 to 42.1 per cent in 1980.
Gale found that Aboriginal men and women perceive
unions with white Australians as providing them with
greater security and freedom from the restrictions of
the strict Aboriginal kinship system. The rules
governing Aboriginal marriage are so complex and
extensive, argued Gale, that young people often cannot
comprehend them and attempt to avoid them; so it
appears that ‘the extent and strength of the kinship
bonds may in fact be militating against their
continuance’ (p. 295).
Gale also identified the economic factors encouraging
intermarriage: for the white partner, increased benefits
including subsidised housing and special educational
allowances for children during the marriage; for the
Aboriginal partner, the benefits included increased
financial security in the case of marriage breakdown,
when the house and other benefits automatically go to
the Aboriginal partner.
• Declining marriage rate. At the same time, the overall
marriage rate declined considerably. On Aboriginal
reserves, marriage was the norm; in the city, Gale
found that de facto, separated and single (never married)
households were becoming increasingly widespread.
Such households were too infrequent to be identified
separately in 1966 but, by 1973, 26.4 per cent of
dual-head households were de facto, increasing to
51.4 per cent in 1980. In 1973, single-parent households
made up 8.4 per cent of the study population aged over
15 years, increasing to 12.4 per cent in 1980.
The increase in de facto unions was also concentrated
in non-mixed partnerships, so that by 1980 most mixed
couples were married, while non-mixed couples were
more likely to be de facto. Gale’s explanation for this is
that the welfare system positively discourages marriage
by limiting the benefits available when married. The
age pension is reduced, and unemployment, supporting
mother’s and invalid pensions are withdrawn from one
partner upon marriage.
• Household structure and mobility. Three aspects of urban
Aboriginal family organisation continued to distinguish
it from white Australian families. The first was the
strength of the multiple or extended family household.
In 1976, households containing two or more families
accounted for 20.4 per cent of Aboriginal households,
as opposed to 4.9 per cent in the general population
(but see the box overleaf for the 2006 figures). Second,
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Gale found that there was above-average mobility
between Aboriginal households. Roughly one-third of
her sample had relatives staying in the house and 10 per
cent had three or more visitors. Third, there was a high
ratio of females to males in 1973, and 62.3 per cent
females to 37.7 per cent males in 1980. Gale’s
interpretation of these figures was that Aboriginal
males are more likely to be able to marry white women;
and single-parent females have access to welfare and
housing benefits unavailable to single men.
The 2006 Census found that, for the whole of Australia,
5 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households
and 1 per cent of non-Aboriginal households contained two or
more families, suggesting a decline among both Aboriginal
and non-Aboriginal households between 1976 and 2006.
Aboriginal household size was still generally larger,
3.3 persons on average (down from 4.6 in 1991), compared
with an average of 2.5 persons for non-Aboriginal households;
and the number living alone was 14 per cent (up from 3 per
cent in 1991), a little more than half the non-Aboriginal
figure of 23 per cent (also up from 6.8 per cent in 1991).
(ABS 1993b, pp. 7–8; 2006c, pp. 27–9)
Aboriginal families and state
intervention: the Stolen
Traditional Aboriginal family life, and traditional culture in
general, was subjected to systematic attempts at eradication
by the euphemistically named state Aborigines Protection
Boards. From the early 1900s onwards every state in Australia
passed various Aborigines Protection Acts, giving authority
to Aborigines Protection (or Welfare) Boards to ‘care’ for
Aboriginal children. In practice, the legislation was used to
remove as many children as possible from their families in
order to facilitate their absorption into European culture and
family values, with the aim of completely eliminating
Aboriginal culture and society. ‘In the course of a few years’,
hoped one welfare official in 1909, ‘there will be no need for
the camps and stations; the old people will have passed away,
and their progeny will be absorbed in the industrial classes
of the country’ (cited in Edwards & Read 1989, p. xiv).
Simply being Aboriginal was regarded as sufficient reason
to define children as ‘neglected’. The definition of neglect
automatically encompassed almost all Aboriginal families,
because it included central features of the social position of
Aborigines in European Australian society—features such as
having ‘no visible means of support or fixed place of abode’, a
situation often forced upon Aboriginal families; and
illegitimacy, which applied to all Aborigines retaining
traditional marriage customs. In 1915 the New South Wales
Aborigines Protection Act was amended to allow children to
be removed without parental consent:
… if the Board considered it to be in the interests of
the child’s moral or physical welfare, placing the onus
on the parents to show that their child was not
neglected. (Read 1983, p. 6)
In Western Australia in 1936 the West Australian
Commissioner for Aboriginal Affairs was made the legal
guardian of all Aboriginal children up to the age of 21, and
the Native Administration Act empowered the state to take all
Aboriginal children from their families by force and place
them in government institutions to be trained in the ways of
‘white civilisation’ and ‘society’ (Haebich 1988, p. 350). The
flavour of state officials’ attitudes towards Aboriginal family
life is captured by this typical comment by a leading welfare
reformer, Charles Mackellar, on ‘the Aboriginal problem’ in
Paternity is casual and conjectural, and promiscuous
association is the rule; sanitation is ignored. Dirt is
the dominating element. In this mire of moral and
physical abasement, tended by semi-imbecile mothers,
children are allowed to wallow through the imitative
stages of childhood. (cited in van Krieken 1991, p. 97)
More than 5000 Aboriginal children were removed from
their families between 1909 and 1969 in New South Wales
alone (Read 1983) and, unlike white children, great care was
taken to ensure that they neither said goodbye nor ever saw
their parents or family again. Often they were given new
names, and the isolation of Aboriginal settlements made it
more difficult for parents and children to trace each other.
Deceit was often used to remove children, on the pretext of a
brief court hearing or hospital stay.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that one in ten
Aboriginal people aged 25 or over in 1994 stated that they
had been removed from their natural families (ABS 1996,
p. 115). Peter Read’s overall estimate was slightly higher:
about one in six Aboriginal children were removed from
their families during this time, compared with one in 300
white children. He saw this as the basis of much of the
disintegration of Aboriginal culture and family life, especially
the violence and alcohol dependency often encountered in
Aboriginal communities. Read concluded: ‘Perhaps in time
the whites will suffer in the knowledge of what they have
done. But they cannot expect forgiveness’ (1983, p. 20).
Migrant family structure
and values
Peter McDonald (1991) has argued that many of Australia’s
migrants come from societies where family life more closely
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approximates what in Western European cultures is
regarded as the ‘traditional’ patriarchal family: an
extended kinship network exerting a strong influence over
marriage and family life, relatively high fertility,
early marriage, infrequent divorce, women’s work
concentrated in and around the home, and strong paternal
authority over women and children. The perception of a
particular family structure as a defining feature of cultural
identity seems to produce greater resistance to more general
economic and social forces producing changes in family life
both among Western European Australians and in the
country of origin. The maintenance of the type of family
life prevalent in the country of origin when the last family
member migrated to Australia often ‘represents centuries
of valuable tradition, the source of rich and meaningful
culture and a field that contains primary contacts and
reference groups’ (Bottomley 1979, p. 180). This pertains
even though family life in the country of origin will in fact
have changed in response to different social and economic
conditions (Peristiany 1976, p. 2). The cultural isolation of
migrant groups from mainstream Australian society
accentuates this tendency by intensifying each individual’s
dependence on the family network for support,
social interaction and a basis for social identity (McDonald
1991, p. 118).
There is general agreement among Australian sociologists
that migrants retain what they perceive to be a ‘core culture’
(Bottomley 1979) (irrespective of whether it corresponds to
the real family forms currently found in their country of
origin), which provides a clear sense of cultural distinctiveness
in their family life, and also adapt their family forms where
necessary to Australian social and economic conditions.
However, there is disagreement on where the emphasis
should be placed. Gillian Bottomley has argued, for
example, that Greek family values and structure are
generally resistant to change, because of the centrality of
Greek familialism to Greek culture and the relative ease
with which a separate cultural identity can be maintained in
the private sphere of the family, in contrast to more public
political and economic behaviour. On the other hand,
McDonald has argued that the overall tendency is towards a
reduction of the influence of traditional family forms, listing
the main forces of change as:
. . . counter-socialisation of children through peers, the
media and school; involvement of migrant women in
the workforce outside the family circle; direct
intervention of Australian institutions in the daily
life of migrants [e.g. schools and courts]; economic
difficulties; urban lifestyles; and isolation from the
wider kin group. (1991, p. 118)
We examine two ethnic groups to illustrate these
arguments: the Greek and Lebanese Muslim communities in
Greek families in Australia
After the Odyssey: A Study of Greek
Australians—Gillian Bottomley
Between 1969 and 1971, Gillian Bottomley studied the
Sydney Greek community in order to identify the forms taken
by Greek migrants’ ethnic identity, the extent to which that
identity had changed in response to Australian society, and the
possible sociological explanations for both stability and change.
Her description of traditional Greek family structure
emphasised the role played by the extended kin network,
especially fathers, in controlling adolescent sexual and social
behaviour and in determining marriage partners. Greek
marriage is a matter of honour for the whole family network,
in contrast to the more individualist emphasis on romantic
love as the primary basis for marriage among Western
European Australian adolescents.
There was a strong emphasis on the authority of fathers
and husbands, and on the relative subservience of wives and
daughters. Greek women and children were thus more likely
to be economically dependent on the male family head
(Bottomley 1979, p. 88). Kin networks also played a
substantial role in organising everyday life, and Bottomley
cited one informant as speaking of Greek ‘family bonds the
strength of which the average Australian cannot conceive’
(p. 146). Greek family networks served economic and moral
purposes that in Western European Australian families have
come to belong to a separate, public sphere. One point of
similarity was the orientation towards the family of
procreation rather than the family of origin; obligations to
their family did not disappear after the birth of children,
stated Bottomley, but the emphasis was on responsibility for
their own children (p. 82).
She found there was a general tendency among the Greek
community to maintain a separate ethnic identity. The
preservation of specifically patterned forms of social
interaction and primary relationships such as marriage and
family was central to that identity.
Australian Family Formation Project—
Greek families in Melbourne
A study conducted in 1976 as part of the Australian Family
Formation Project by Packer, Caldwell and Caldwell among
Greek women of various ages, educational levels and date of
arrival in Australia found a range of changes in Greek family
patterns, but also considerable stability. Although Greek
mothers did admit a preference for their daughters marrying
Greek men, they felt they had no real control over their
daughters’ choice of partner and that marriages were arranged
to a decreasing extent. However, university-educated girls
especially felt that their parents still played a larger role in
relationships and marriage than among their non-Greek
Australian counterparts. They felt that their parents wanted
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to meet and know about prospective sons-in-law and retained
tight control over their social encounters with males until
they were engaged. Parents still attempted to prohibit all
unsupervised dates, assuming that boys had only one thing
on their minds. The Greek girls took this for granted and
explained that they would lie to their parents in order to
meet with boyfriends. In fact, ‘there would probably have
been suspicion of parents who showed little concern about
their daughters’ doings’ (1976, p. 128). Generally, there was
still a strong linkage in the girls’ minds between sexuality,
or loss of virginity, and marriage. They believed that their
non-Greek peers were far more likely to be sexually active
while still single and that ‘Australian girls have no hang-ups
at all about remaining virgins’ (p. 134).
Once married, however, the study found that Greek
couples were as likely as non-Greeks to defer the birth of
their first child, and all generations agreed that a couple
should begin acquiring a house, establish careers and have a
few years going out and enjoying themselves—roughly two
to four years at least after marriage. Their ideal family size
was at least two children, but no more than three.
Greek mothers in Greece and Australia—
Smyrnios and Tonge
In 1981 Kosmas Smyrnios and Bruce Tonge conducted a
survey that compared the attitudes of Greek mothers living
in Australia with those of Greek mothers in Greece. They
found that 73 per cent of the Australian sample reported
that either a parent or a relative had played a significant role
in arranging their marriage, whereas only 25 per cent of the
Greek sample said that their marriage was arranged. The
researchers also found that no Australian Greek mother
reported a pre-marital pregnancy, whereas 17.6 per cent of
the Greek mothers had conceived their first child before
marriage. The first child had been conceived within six
months of marriage among 75 per cent of the Australian
mothers, and 41.2 per cent of the Greek mothers.
Smyrnios and Tonge concluded that, in the attempt to
retain a distinctive cultural identity, aspects of Greek family
life had been ‘frozen’, especially the role played by parents in
arranging marriages and restricting pre-marital sexuality,
despite changes in those family patterns in Greece itself.
Lebanese Muslim families in
Family life also plays a central role in both traditional and
contemporary Lebanese society, serving economic, social
and welfare purposes. Although contemporary Lebanese
society is becoming more individualistic, Hassan, Healy and
McKenna argue that individuals are ‘still dependent on
kinship structure for identity protection, economic
advancement or security’ (1985, p. 180). They described the
role of the extended family in society as adaptable and ‘elastic’,
since Lebanese society and family life have been changing for
some time. Nonetheless, a source of stress in Lebanese family
life is still the unity and honour of the family as a whole,
centred on male dominance and authority, and emphasising
familial responsibility and reciprocity. Hassan, Healy and
McKenna found that in Australia ‘marriages were generally
arranged, and “unsuitable” marriages rarely occurred. If such
unions seemed likely, parental or familial counter-influence
was said to be decisive’ (1985, p. 189).
In Lebanese society there has never been any civil law
concerning marriage and divorce. They come under the
exclusive authority of Lebanon’s 17 different Christian,
Muslim and Jewish religious groupings (Humphrey 1984,
p. 184). The pivotal role of religion in family life contrasts
with Australian society, where the state is regarded as having
almost complete jurisdiction over family matters. This has
far-reaching consequences for the Lebanese Muslim
community, because Islamic family law conflicts with
Australian civil family law on a number of important points:
permissible age at marriage, the authority of sheikhs to
perform marriage, bride-wealth provisions in marriage
contracts and custody of children after divorce, as well as
division of property and men’s entitlement to declare divorce
(Humphrey 1984, p. 183).
The most intense conflict between Islamic and Australian
civil family law arises from divorce and subsequent custody
and property settlement issues. In Islamic law, the concept of
‘fault’ and its impact on questions of family honour is central
to the resolution of disputes, whereas Australian family law
ignores such issues, focusing instead on the future welfare of
all the individuals in the dispute, particularly that of the
custodial parent and children. Australian family law can
remove full custody and control from the male parent,
. . . in Islamic law husbands are entitled to the
custody of boys at seven years and girls at nine years
and to all property not brought to the marriage by the
wife, or given to her as bridewealth.
(Humphrey 1984, p. 192)
A husband can also refuse to grant his wife a divorce, or
repudiate her (talaq), so that, while she may be divorced in
the eyes of Australian courts, under Islamic law she remains
married and unable to remarry. The husband may remarry,
as Islamic law allows him to have up to four wives (Hassan,
Healy & McKenna 1985, p. 190).
The Australian Family Law Court thus provides an avenue
for Lebanese Muslim women and their kin to challenge the
claims and authority of their husbands and their kin under
Islamic law. Michael Humphrey found that 75 per cent of
the divorces he studied were initiated by the wife and that
such court action establishes the support of the wife’s kin,
since she would rarely go to a solicitor alone (1984, p. 193).
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There are two important consequences emerging from
migration to Australia:
1. The Islamic courts, which in the Middle East temper
the power of husbands, are largely absent in the
Australian Muslim community. This enhances men’s
ability to declare divorce unilaterally (Humphrey
1984, p. 192), and increases the influence of the
Lebanese sheikhs, who are concerned to reinforce their
authority in the Australian Lebanese community
through regulation of marital disputes.
2. Their Muslim identity is experienced as being
threatened in a predominantly non-Muslim, secular
society. The drawing of most family members into
education and work means that ‘the relations which are
governed by honour tend to contract to the members
of the household, which increasingly become the focus
of cultural and social continuity’ (p. 194).
In the migrant context, then, the maintenance of family
customs assumes the extra burden of ensuring cultural and
ethnic continuity, and increases the resistance to any
accommodation to the Australian civil legislation covering
marriage and divorce. Lebanese Muslim husbands are
inclined to regard the impact of the Australian Family Law
Court on their family affairs as an illegitimate attack on their
position within the traditional moral order of Lebanese
family life, and as an assault on the very foundations of
Lebanese ethnic identity. Their response most often ranges
from being uncooperative with the court and their estranged
wife and children and refusing to grant a religious divorce
(making it impossible for their wives to remarry) to physical
threats or assaults (Humphrey 1984, p. 193).
Ethnicity and family diversity:
The general picture provided by these studies suggests that
immigrants and their descendants have in many ways
adapted their family life to fit Australian circumstances, yet
maintain many of the relationships on which their traditional
family life was based. Despite considerable changes since the
1970s, families originating in Mediterranean cultures
maintain a relatively high rate of endogamy (marrying
within the ethnic group). They also experience lower rates of
divorce and tend to marry earlier; and they are less likely to
live in households apart from their families, more likely to
form multiple-family households and less likely to enter into
de facto relationships (McDonald 1991).
This would suggest that the existence of a variety of
ethnic groups has indeed contributed to the diversity of
family types to be found in Australia. These migrant groups
have succeeded in retaining many of the culturally distinctive
features of their family life. Nevertheless, there is also
evidence of changes taking place in migrant families that
may continue in future generations. As McDonald has
argued, ‘their children are deeply exposed to the dominant
Australian social environment’ (1991, p. 120). The
sociological question here is whether migrant groups will
sustain the diversity in family values in the face of the many
economic, social and institutional forces that challenge the
basis of their distinctive familial identities.
REFLECTIVE QUESTION Can we continue to speak of
‘the family’, given the enormous diversity of family types
and forms?
Marriage is a wonderful institution … but who
would want to live in an institution? (H. L. Mencken)
The idea of ‘the’ family suggests a single model for all
intimate and child-rearing relationships. However, there is
now considerable social research establishing that
contemporary societies are characterised by a plurality of
household and family types, and the idea of a typical
family is misleading. Over 25 years ago, in a report entitled
What’s Happening to the Australian Family?, the National
Population Council declared that ‘Australian society has
been passing through a transition from being dominated
by one family type, parents and their offspring, to being
one of diversity, where a wide range of different family and
non-family types are common’ (National Population
Council 1987, p. 1). Thus it is becoming more and more
problematic to think in terms of a typical, normal or
conventional family.
The major overall long-term trends in all Western countries,
despite occasional variations and fluctuations, are towards:
• a steady decline in fertility
• increasing female workforce participation, irrespective
of their marital status
• increasing numbers of single-parent families
• a decline in adoption overall, and a shift from local to
intercountry adoption
• increasing rates of divorce, de facto cohabitation before
or instead of marriage, and births outside of marriage
• a gradual increase in same-sex parenting.
The fertility decline in Australia
Although family life can be regarded as having been ‘nuclear’,
and relatively constant in size, through most of the history of
Western Europe, there has been a dramatic change in the
size and structure of families and households in all Western
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societies over the past century. These changes have had, and
continue to have, profound and far-reaching social and
economic consequences, both for family life itself and for the
place of the family within the broader society.
John Caldwell and Lado Ruzicka argued that fertility
decline was probably the major cause of ‘the collapse of the
domestic society in the modern era’ (1978, p. 95), by which
they mean the demise of the conventional nuclear family
with a clear division of labour between a male breadwinner
and a female houseworker. The consequences of family size
are felt in the short term through the immediate economic
and social impact of fewer children, but they also echo down
through history as the reproductive choices made by one
generation set the demographic, economic and social scene
for the actions of the following generation.
The decline in household size
In the convict period and colonial period up to the 1850s
convicts were housed in dormitories, in households and on
farms as servants, and the unbalanced gender ratio meant
that many males were living in hotels and boarding houses.
These conditions led to large households of about ten people,
roughly double the average British size. The overall size of
European Australian households has dropped since white
settlement in 1788 from over ten to a little over 2.6 in 2013
(see Figure 4.1). The average household size is projected to
continue declining to around 2.4 people in 2031 (ABS
2012a, p. 264).
After the gold rushes in the 1850s, Australian household
size remained relatively constant at around five people until
World War I. It then declined, first slowly and then more
rapidly after the 1930s to around three people in 1990 and an
average of 2.6 in 2013. Graeme Snooks emphasised that this
‘was part of the first major change in average household size
in Western society in 1000 years’ and that ‘its importance
cannot be exaggerated’ (1994, p. 66). As Caldwell put it:
The study of fertility transition is the study of the
transformation of familial production into production
through the labour market, of traditional society into
modern society. (1982, p. 231)
This change in household size was the result of a drastic
reduction in the number of children borne by Australian
women, producing what some observers see as the most
significant impact on women’s lives over the last century. In
1891, over 40 per cent of Australian families had six or more
children, whereas today the most common size is two or
three. This decline is reflected in the total fertility rate,
which indicates approximately the total number of children
born in any given year. The fertility rate of Australian
women, like their counterparts throughout the Western
world, began to decline in the 1870s, recovered again in the
post–World War II ‘baby boom’, declined significantly again
in the 1970s and showed some signs of modest recovery in
the 1990s and early 2000s (see Figure 4.2).
There are three transitions to be explained—the dramatic
fertility decline since the 1870s, which has remained the
longer term trend; the ‘baby boom’ following World War II;
and the strong decline in the 1970s. These are discussed below.
From the ‘proper time to marry’ to
the ‘proper time to reproduce’—
John Caldwell and Lado Ruzicka
The general framework most commonly used to analyse
fertility changes is the model of demographic transition,
Figure 4.1 Household size, Australia, 1788–2013
Source: Based on data from Snooks (1994) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Persons per household
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
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which is summarised in the diagram developed by Graeme
Hugo (see Figure 4.3).
Caldwell and Ruzicka argued that the economics of childbearing for most of the 19th century (Stage 2 in the model)
were that children were economically beneficial at best and
cheap to raise at worst. Clothes were handmade, food was
freely available on farms, a frugal life was regarded as good
for children and ‘neither children nor parents believed that
the former should have parity with the latter in consumption
or pleasures or even that such a comparison should be made’
(1978, p. 85). Children were expected to work and contribute
to the family income as soon as possible. Fertility was
generally high within marriage, and although deferring
marriage had the effect of reducing fertility, marriage was
deferred not for this reason but because of the costs involved
in the establishment of a new household. There was a strong
Figure 4.2 Total fertility rate, 1861–2013
Source: Based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Number of live births
(per 1000 female population)
7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 1861
Figure 4.3 Traditional form of the demographic transition model
Source: © Hugo, G. 1986, Australia’s Changing Population, Figure 3.1, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, p. 43.

Stage 1
Stage 2
Death rate
Stage 3
Birth rate
Stage 4


Modernisation and time
Rate (per thousand per year)
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sense of the ‘proper time to marry’ but, once married, fertility
was high, and little relationship was seen between family
size and economic welfare.
Schooling and fertility decline
The expansion of the market for wage labour, the changing
nature of work requiring workers with greater levels of skill
and the increasing orientation towards consumption turned
children into different sorts of creatures and changed
fundamentally their relations with their parents. Caldwell
and Ruzicka summarised the change with the concept of a
reversal of the ‘net intergenerational flow of wealth’.
Schooling turned children into investments in the future,
rather than resources to be drawn upon in the present.
As Philippe Ariès put it, the 19th-century decline ‘was
unleashed by an enormous sentimental and financial
investment in the child’ (1980, p. 649), an investment that
required the planning of births and ‘introduced foresight and
organization where formerly there had been only automatic,
unplanned behaviour and resigned surrender to impulses and
destiny’ (p. 646).
A central feature of this investment is its uncertain,
unbounded nature, so that a strong temptation arises to
maximise the investment—one never knows what the
return might be. The knowledge provided in schools
expanded the range of consumer items a child would be
interested in, as well as the pleasure adults would derive
from introducing their children to the delights of, say,
music, sewing machines or cameras, all of which became
increasingly available from the 1880s onwards. Rather than
being a source of economic input into the family economy,
children became an ever-increasing cost, giving rise to an
interest in fertility limitation.
The increasing ‘cost’ of children was not only economic
but also psychological and emotional. The school
diminished the control parents had over their children,
because of the additional authority figure of the teacher and
the network of peers it provided. This required greater
effort on the part of parents to maintain their relationships
with their children. Schooling and its effects made children
more independent of their parents, providing them with
greater labour market skills and greater potential income,
thus reducing their likely future responsiveness to the
priorities (emotional, cultural and economic) of their family
of origin. The situation also made them more ‘costly’, in the
sense that it reduced the length of time that a child could
be expected to contribute to the family’s psychological and
financial ‘economy’.
The role of women
Caldwell also saw the changing role of women as a factor in
the decline of fertility. Even in societies characterised by
high fertility, women favour it less than their husbands, not
least because of the impact of frequent births on their health.
With a gradual increase in standards of living in the course
of the 20th century, first among the middle class and then
spreading slowly among the working class, one of the first
aims pursued by women was spending more time with their
own children (Quiggan 1988).
In the face of an almost non-existent market for female
labour, the nuclear family became a source of women’s
individuality and their rights against their parents, parentsin-law and husbands. Wives forged ‘a powerful weapon for
weakening their husbands’ bonds with their parents by
arguing that the children must come first, that they are their
children’ (Caldwell 1982, p. 241).
Economic conditions and fertility
Once children are perceived as a cost rather than a resource,
some part in a declining birth rate is also played by general
economic conditions and the prospects for being able to
support greater fertility. Pat Quiggan argued that women
had a particular interest in fertility control, being more
directly faced, as housekeepers, with the task of feeding and
clothing their children, especially problematic if their
husbands were unemployed. She pointed out that the role of
economic conditions is reflected in the interstate differences
in fertility, which corresponded to the different onsets of
depressed economic conditions in New South Wales and
Victoria (Quiggan 1988, p. 119).
Baby boom or marriage boom?
The long-term trend towards fertility decline was interrupted
dramatically and significantly by the post–World War II
‘baby boom’ in all Western countries, including Australia.
The increase in the crude birth rate has been attributed to
two main causes: a marriage boom and a particular cultural
and ideological climate, characterised by a ‘youth revolt’
against the prudence of the pre-war years and a corresponding
optimism about the future of modern society.
Much of the rise in fertility was due to the increase in
marriages and the decline in the age at marriage after 1946.
This had the effect of increasing the number of potential
child-bearing women and also their potentially reproductive
years. Although total fertility continued to rise between 1947
and 1961, marital fertility was actually stable or decreasing
slightly. Together with other features of the period, such as a
catch-up of postponed births and overlapping cohorts of
women bearing children at the same time, Caldwell estimated
that this accounted for 30–50 per cent of the baby boom. The
remainder, argued Caldwell, can be explained by an
intergenerational battle, what he calls the ‘youth revolt’. He
sees the increase in child-bearing as part of a more general
assertion of independence from parents and grandparents.
Marriage and the establishment of a household were
experienced as a manifestation of maturity and autonomy,
especially for young women. Also:
A lesser care about the containment of fertility was
necessary, defiantly so, to proclaim the absoluteness of
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their control over their relations with their spouses
and the children who were the products of their union.
(Caldwell 1982, p. 250)
The post-1970s fertility decline
The decline in the fertility rate in Australia after 1970 was
‘one of the world’s most dramatic’ (Hugo 1992, p. 13)—a
drop of 45 per cent in the 20 years between 1961 and 1981
(see Figure 4.4). This decline was the product of social and
economic changes, which Peter McDonald (1984, 2000)
explains as follows:
• The depressed economic conditions of the 1970s made
couples more cautious about child-bearing.
• In part, the baby boom itself was a factor. By the
1970s, the children born in the baby boom era were
competing with each other in the workforce and also
entering their prime child-bearing years. They formed
a generation who ‘have, throughout their lives, faced
relative deprivation and fierce competition, relative …
to the preceding generations born in the 1930s and
early 1940s’ (1984, p. 19).
• There is a lack of synchronisation across different social
institutions in a shift away from the ‘male breadwinner’
towards the ‘gender equity’ model. McDonald argues
that if those social institutions connected with education
and work have moved a great deal towards increased
gender equity, while those related to the family and
parenthood are still more aligned to the ‘male
breadwinner’ model, this has a crucial dampening effect
on fertility. The contradictions and tensions across
different social spheres lead both men and women to be
more cautious about having children, to delay childbearing and to reduce the number of children they have.
The clear trend since the 1970s is that women are having
their first child later in life. The median age of mothers has
risen from around 25 years of age in 1972 to nearly 31 in
2013 (see Figure 4.5).
The age-specific fertility rate also provides a useful picture
of the change that is taking place: the fertility rate of women
between 20 and 30 years of age has steadily declined from
1961 to the present, while that of women between 30 and 40
years of age has gradually increased, albeit at a much lower
level, since the mid-1970s (see Figure 4.6).
Another long-term trend is the changing role played by
children within overall family economies, particularly in
competition with other ways of consuming disposable
income. For Snooks, the historical evidence on the relationship
between family income and number of children indicated
that, when faced with the choice between procreation and
increased consumption, families throughout the Western
world opted for consumption:
What has been substituted for family time is a
bewildering array of consumer durables, fast foods,
domestic service, cars, larger homes, restaurants,
entertainment, exotic holidays, travel, holiday
houses, hobby farms, motor launches, yachts,
four-wheel drive vehicles, together with expensive
clothing and a vast range of personal goods.
(Snooks 1994, p. 145)
This supports Ariès’ argument that, while a greater
investment in children produced the first decline in the birth
rate around the end of the 19th century, the post-1970s
decline was caused by exactly the opposite—a greater
investment in alternative forms of consumption. ‘The days of
the child-king are over. The under-40s generation is leading
us into a new epoch, one in which the child occupies a
smaller place, to say the least’ (1980, p. 649). Not that
Figure 4.4 Net reproduction rate, 1930–2013
Net rate
2 1 01930
Source: Based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
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children have no place at all, but they now have to fit in ‘as
one of the various components that make it possible for
adults to blossom as individuals’ (1980, p. 649).
REFLECTIVE QUESTIONS Give an explanation of the
social dynamics behind the falling fertility rate in European
societies since the late 19th century. Do you think that
Australian family life has followed the same trends? If so,
has this been for the same reasons?
Women’s participation in the
Although the nature of the relationship is not clear, a related
change is the dramatic increase in the workforce participation
of women, and especially married women, since World
War II. Before 1939, the division of labour in both the
household and the paid workforce was organised along
gender lines:
. . . with males specializing in the acquisition of market
human capital and working full-time in the market
sector, and with married females acquiring household
skills and working full-time in the household.
(Snooks 1994, p. 82)
However, Caldwell and Ruzicka argued that, because the
baby boom took place within the framework of the preceding
fertility decline, along with various other social changes such
as suburbanisation, the spread of the motor car and the
development of shopping centres, the basic infrastructure for
Figure 4.5 Median age of mother, 1921–2013
Age of mother
Source: Based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Figure 4.6 Age-specific fertility rates, 1921–2013
Number of live births, according to age
of mother, per 1000 female population
Source: Based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
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such an expansion of domesticity and child-rearing was
disappearing from beneath the nuclear family’s feet. Parents,
especially mothers, had fewer siblings to call on for support
and the remote nature of the Australian suburbs made
parenting an even more isolating task. The changing nature
of work and the gradual increase in women’s wages after
1946 made entering the workforce a more attractive option
for women, one that they took up in increasing numbers.
Once they started working outside the home, the process
became self-sustaining, because ‘it reinforced the isolation of
wives who were not working and the downgrading of the
domestic virtues’ (Caldwell & Ruzicka 1978, p. 95).
The employment available to women had changed
significantly, with more jobs in offices, shops and light
manufacturing. The increasing participation of girls in
education after World War II also led to an interest in careers
and self-development beyond the family, as well as opening up
more work opportunities. Caldwell and Ruzicka pointed out
that women’s increased entry into the paid workforce preceded
by almost ten years the reappearance of a women’s movement
in the 1970s. They argued that this change produced the
women’s movement, rather than the other way round. Once the
process was in motion, the two phenomena became mutually
reinforcing, so that the effects of feminism were to further
facilitate and accelerate women’s workforce participation.
The change in the proportion of women in the paid
workforce since 1950 has been dramatic, more than doubling
from 25 per cent in 1945 to 59 per cent in 2014 (see
Figure 4.7). Much of the increase can be attributed to married
women, rising from 6.5 per cent in 1947 to 62 per cent in
2014, above the rate for all women. About 90 per cent of the
increase has been in part-time work.
The pattern of change becomes clearer when we look at
workforce participation for different age groups at each of the
censuses (see Figures 4.8 and 4.9). Australian women have
moved from a pattern of doing paid work between the ages
of 15 and 19 and then working full-time in the home, to
staying longer at school, entering the workforce, either
leaving for increasingly brief intervals of child-rearing and
full-time domestic labour during their peak child-bearing
years or somehow combining work and child-rearing, and
then returning to the workforce until their mid-50s.
One important qualification is that these figures do not
capture the distinction between part-time and full-time
work. The proportion of women working part-time increased
between 1982 and 2009 from 35 per cent of total female
employment to 45.9 per cent (ABS 2009b). The issue
simmering underneath these changes is how the predominance
of part-time work among women is to be explained—whether
it is a choice they make, enabling them to keep one foot in
the domestic sphere; or whether it is a choice forced upon
them by husbands who are either openly or furtively reluctant
to increase their share of the domestic duties.
Causes and effects of increased
female participation in the
Various explanations have been offered for the increase in
female participation in the workforce, including declining
family size, higher average education levels, greater equality
in personal relationships, easier divorce, increased numbers
of single-mother families and greater life expectancy (Eccles
1984; Richmond 1974).
Snooks believed that the most significant changes were
those in the technological character of the economy—rises in
the costs of labour relative to capital, the de-skilling and
Figure 4.7 Women’s participation in the workforce, 1947–2014
Source: Based on data from Young (1990) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
All women Married women
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‘de-physicalisation’ of large sectors of the labour market,
improvements in women’s wages relative to men’s and the
substitution of capital for labour in the household (1994,
p. 83). ‘No amount of political rhetoric, social rationalization,
or sexual discrimination … no amount of male chauvinism’
could resist these economic developments, argued Snooks,
because ‘social values are forged by economic change, not
economic change by social values’ (p. 83). Snooks saw
increased female workforce participation as ‘largely a
function of the changing technological base, and the
emerging post-industrial structure of the market economy,
rather than of an exogenous change in institutional or
“cultural” forces’ (p. 104; see also Harris 1983, pp. 92–3).
This type of perspective is often referred to as emphasising
Figure 4.8 Age-specific workforce participation, all women, 1911–2014
Source: Based on data from Young (1990) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Age range
15–19 20–24 25–29 30–34 35–39 40–44 45–49 50–54 55–59 60–64
1911 1956
1961 1966
1946 1951
1981 1986 1991 1996
2001 2006 2011 2014
Figure 4.9 Age-specific workforce participation, married women, 1933–2014
Source: Based on data from Young (1990) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Age range
15–19 20–24 25–29 30–34 35–39 40–44 45–49 50–54 55–60 60–64
1933 1956
1961 1966
1946 1951
1981 1986 1991 1996
2001 2006 2011 2014
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‘demand-side’ factors, because it concentrates on the demands
or requirements of the economy rather than on the
characteristics of the ‘supply’ of workers.
Kingsley Davis (1984) pointed out how the separation of
the spheres of economic production and familial reproduction
that was characteristic of Western societies after the Industrial
Revolution was historically unprecedented, rather than
‘normal’ or ‘traditional’. He called the family structure based
on the man as breadwinner and the woman as homemaker
the breadwinner system and saw it as associated with a
very particular stage of development: the transitional period
when agriculture gradually gave way to industrial production
(around 1850–1920 in the United States).
The separation of home and work took this particular
form because of the existing levels of fertility; women were
still having too many children to work outside the home as
well. These fertility levels changed over the next half century,
partly because of the economic changes mentioned by
Snooks, but also because the breadwinner system had
‘internal contradictions that make its ultimate demise a
foregone conclusion’ (Davis 1984, p. 406). In most of human
history, argued Davis, except during this relatively brief
period, ‘women have rivalled men in economic production
and are now returning to that condition and will not give it
up’ (1984, p. 415).
In the breadwinner system, women’s income lay beyond
their control, yet they were expected to behave as fully
mature managers and executors of familial finances (Zelizer
1994). Family income was funnelled through husbands who
had minimal personal contact with the family it was
supposed to support, or at the very least they struggled with
a constant opposition between the spheres of home and work.
The financial dependency that characterised women’s
position made choosing the ‘right’ partner a decision fraught
with significance and consequences; it made marriage a
heavy responsibility for men, and family life an extremely
good recipe for conflict and a yearning by both parties for
escape. The increasing workforce participation of married
women, increasing divorce rates and declining fertility were
manifestations of this tension lodged at the heart of the
breadwinner system.
Marriage, cohabitation and
Important changes have been taking place in family life in
all Western industrialised countries, including Australia—
changes that are challenging the dominance of the
‘conventional family’ in society. Part of this change is that
marriage appears to be decreasingly central to family life.
Fewer people are getting married, they are marrying later,
they are having fewer children or none at all, and more
people are cohabiting and having children without getting
married. The increase in marital breakdown is reflected in
rises in the divorce rate.
In 2012/13, about 85 per cent of the Australian population
lived in households consisting of some type of family, 88.7
per cent of family households consisted of one-couple families
and 14.2 per cent were single-parent families (ABS 2011l)
(see Figures 4.10 and 4.11, overleaf).
The marriage rate and ex-nuptial
Marriage rates among young adults have declined in all
Western countries since World War II. Figure 4.12 shows
the crude marriage rate (per 1000 mean population,
including both remarriages and first marriages) in Australia
between 1860 and 2013. Apart from the wartime
Although women do increasingly more
paid work outside the home, and men are
doing some housework, women still do
between one and half and two times more
domestic labour and childcare than men.
The amount of time women spend on
childcare seems actually to be increasing.
Many people feel constantly torn between
the demands of the workplace and being
able to spend time with family and friends.
A recent study of the relationship between
work and family life found that ‘women
are now as annoyed as men at the extent
work encroaches on the other facets of
life’ (Narushima 2009).
1. What effect do you think that the amount
of paid work people do these days has
on the character of family relationships?
2. Does it make people less inclined to
have children or to have fewer children?
3. Does it change the relationships
between family members?
Work/life balance
Source: © Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock,
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Figure 4.10 Households, families and persons, 2012/13
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Family Characteristics and Transitions, Australia, 2012–13, cat. no. 4442.0,[email protected]/
PrimaryMainFeatures/4442.0 © Commonwealth of Australia.

with no children
Couple families with dependent children
88.7% of family households 42.9% of couple families
with non-dependent children
47.8% of couple families
9.2% of couple families
Family households
One-family households
72.1% of households
95.6% of families
84.7% of persons
Multi-family households
1.6% of households
4.4% of families
3.6% of persons
with dependent children
14.2% of family households
with non-dependent children
36.4% of one-parent families
Lone-person households
9% of persons
Group households
3% of households
2.7% of persons
One-parent families
63.8% of one-parent families
Other families
1.7% of family households

8 890 000 households
6 705 000 families
22 819 000 persons
Figure 4.11 Family types, 1976–2010
Source: Based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Lone parent with
dependent children
Couple living
with no children
Couple with
dependent children
Couple with nondependent children
Other families
Same-sex couples
1976 1986 1996 2006 2010
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peaks—World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War—the
overall tendency has been downwards.
These figures should not, however, be interpreted simply
as indicating a decline in marriage as a social institution.
Gordon Carmichael has pointed out that in historical
terms ‘it is the carefree approach to marriage that peaked
around 1970 that is aberrant; statistically, marriage
patterns nowadays bear similarities to those of the 1940s’
(1990, p. 53).
Australian couples are also marrying at a later age: in
1975 the median age at first marriage was 23.4 years for
males and 21.0 years for females but by 2007 this had
increased to 29.6 years for males and 27.6 years for females.
By 2013 the figure had increased slightly to 29.9 for males
and 28.3 for females (see Figure 4.13).
Apart from the age at which Australians marry, it is also
possible to gauge the general popularity of marriage by
looking at the percentage of women who never marry. Peter
Figure 4.12 Crude marriage rate, Australia and the United States, 1860–2013
Source: Based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Per 1000 population
Australia United States
8 6 4 2 0
Figure 4.13 Median age at first marriage, males and females, 1925–2013
Source: Based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Males Females
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McDonald (1984, 1994) has pointed out that the proportion of
Australian women who never marry moved from a high point
of around 15 per cent for those born in the late 1800s, dropped
to a low of around 5 per cent for those born between 1920 and
1950, and has since increased towards the formerly high levels
for those born since 1950 (see Figure 4.14).
The link between marriage and child-bearing is changing
over time, with fewer children being born within marriage (see
Figure 4.15) and more and more children being born outside
marriage. Up until the 1960s, the proportion of ex-nuptial
births remained roughly steady at around 5 per cent of all
births, but since then it has been climbing steadily, to 34.5 per
cent in 2009, and 34.4 per cent in 2013 (see Figure 4.16).
In the United States, the increase has been greater, reaching
40.6 per cent in 2013. However, this could simply be a measure
of a tendency towards cohabitation (see below, p. 129) and
for couples to marry after giving birth rather than before. For
example, it is estimated that nearly half of all ex-nuptial births
in the United States are to mothers cohabiting with the father
(Heuveline & Timberlake 2004, p. 1215).
Figure 4.14 Lifetime childless, never marrying
Note: Irregular dates on x-axis reflect breaks in the collection of data.
Source: Based on data from McDonald (1984, p. 44; 1994, p. 155).
Lifetime childless Lifetime never marrying
Figure 4.15 Births per married woman
Note: Irregular dates on x-axis reflect breaks in the collection of data.
Source: Based on data from McDonald (1984, p. 44; 1994, p. 155).
Number of births per woman
8 7 6 5 4 3 0
2 1
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Until the 1970s, many children born outside marriage were
adopted rather than staying in the care of their biological
mother. The policies and practices of child welfare authorities
were based on a particular model of normal and adequate
family life. The children of unmarried and usually quite young
mothers were seen as being at risk of neglect, abuse and
eventual delinquency. Poverty was seen as more or less
equivalent to neglect, and it was assumed that the children of
a young mother with virtually non-existent employment
prospects and without the financial support of a husband were
destined to a life of poverty and crime (Swain & Howe 1995).
It was clear that the children of unmarried mothers should not
stay in their care, and adoption was regarded as a superior
alternative to institutional care, solving at the same time the
problem of childlessness for otherwise ‘normal’ couples. As
the Senate Committee’s report on forced adoptions sums it up:
Collectively, attitudes during the 1950s and 1960s
towards adoptions, young single mothers and
impoverished families indicate a general intolerance
of individuals and families who did not fit the
idealised family unit. This intolerance appears to
have coalesced with a general entitlement mentality
advocating the ‘right’ of all legitimate couples to have
children. This powerful mix of intolerance and sense
of entitlement appears to have partly manifested itself
in the adoption practices of the era, encapsulated by
the belief that if children were born to people of ‘low
moral standard’ or poverty, they should be adopted by
infertile couples of better social standing so as to
ensure the best interests of the child were being looked
after. (Commonwealth of Australia 2012, p. 24)1
The combination of a punitive attitude towards
unmarried mothers as being ‘unfit’, a high demand among
Early in 1970 I found that I was pregnant. As an
unmarried woman who had just turned 21, this was
a most distressing time for me. I knew of other women
who were unmarried and pregnant; they suffered
discrimination, public humiliation, their children
were referred to as bastards, they were branded as
illegitimate. I knew that my child and I faced an
uncertain future … My father said to me that if I
kept my child, I would not be welcome at home or in
the family … My parents feared that I would bring
disgrace, shame and ridicule and this would damage the
family reputation. They worried that my siblings would
be taunted about having an illegitimate (bastard) child
in the family. It all had to be kept a secret. I was to be
banished from home and immediate family members
for the duration of the pregnancy and faced being
shunned and excluded from the family if I went against
the wishes of my parents. Such were the times, vulnerable
pregnant and unmarried women were at the mercy of
social criticism and ridicule. They were socially isolated
and treated harshly. At a time when the mother most
needed love, compassion and emotional support, she and
her child were cast aside by society in general, and
manipulated by the adoption system.
(Submission to the Senate Inquiry into Forced Adoption,
Commonwealth of Australia 2012, p. 41)1
Figure 4.16 Ex-nuptial births, percentage of total births, Australia and the United States, 1911–2013
5 0
Australia United States
Source: Based on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
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couples wishing to adopt a child and an underdeveloped
understanding of the relationship between a mother and
her child meant that unmarried mothers were subjected to
intense pressure, if not force and deceit, to relinquish their
children. The shame surrounding unmarried mothers
meant that young women were expected to go through
their pregnancy in a maternity home, where they were
sometimes given a false name, kept in the dark about
alternatives to adoption, expected not to communicate
with family or friends—certainly not the father—and
forced to work for no pay, in the kitchen and laundry, as
well as scrubbing and cleaning. When they gave birth,
their baby was either literally snatched from their arms or
taken from them through deceit—sometimes, for example,
mothers would be told that their child had been stillborn
or had died—and handed over to the supposedly more
deserving adopting couple (Commonwealth of Australia
2012, pp. 29–70).
The number of adoptions increased with the increase in
ex-nuptial births in the 1960s, reaching a high point of 9798
in 1971/72. After 1973, however, adoptions dropped off
sharply, and have continued to decrease since, also shifting
from local adoptions (children born in Australia or who are
permanent residents of Australia) to intercountry adoptions
(children born overseas), so that in 2013/14 there was a record
low of 317 adoptions, of which only 46 were local adoptions.
One reason for the decrease was the availability of more
effective contraception, the introduction of family-planning
advice and the legal tolerance of abortion. Such changes
contributed to a sharp decline in teenage fertility, which
almost exactly mirrored the decline in the number of
adoptions (see Figures 4.17 and 4.18).
The decrease in the adoption rate also reflects a variety of
broader changes in our understanding of marriage, family
life, childhood and parenting. For example, the women’s
movement questioned the prioritising of the ‘normal’ family
over all other considerations, and single women were
decreasingly seen as a threat to the social fabric. The
emphasis, as Jones observes, ‘shifted to the emotional welfare
of the individual mother and her child instead of the family
and the nation’ (2000, p. 60). The support provided to
married women whose husbands had died or deserted them
was extended to unmarried mothers with the Whitlam
Government’s introduction of the supporting mother’s
benefit in July 1973, and this removed the strong financial
pressure on young mothers to relinquish their babies for
adoption, although the Senate Inquiry into Forced Adoption
noted that the decline had actually started two years
beforehand (Commonwealth of Australia 2012, p. 9).
REFLECTIVE QUESTION How do you think the history
of attitudes to unmarried mothers in the post-war period
illustrates the ways in which our understanding of a
‘normal’ family has changed since the 1960s?
Cohabitation in de facto relationships by couples who are
not legally married has increasingly become a form of
preparation for marriage, an alternative to marriage itself or
a living arrangement following divorce or widowhood (ABS
2012b, p. 13). With the greater tolerance of pre-marital
sexuality from the 1970s onwards, marriage has lost its role
in legitimising regular sexual activity, so that whether a
Figure 4.17 Adoptions in Australia, 1951–2014
Source: Based on data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Number of adoptions
1 000
2 000
3 000
4 000
5 000
6 000
7 000
8 000
9 000
10 000
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