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A nuclear family.

The term nuclear family is used to distinguish a family group consisting of most commonly, a father and mother and their children, from what is known as an extended family. Nuclear families can be any size, as long as the family can support itself and there are only children and two parents, nuclear families meet its individual members’ basic needs since available resources are only divided among few individuals or the family would be known as an extended family.

In China, the most populous nation in the world, the nuclear family is considered the most common family arrangement.[1] In the more urban parts of India, the second most populous nation, the number of nuclear families is overtaking other forms of family arrangements, although unpopular among Hindu orthodoxy who advocate a form of extended family structure called the joint family.[2] In the United States, the third most populous nation, just under 25% of family units are considered nuclear families.[3]


During 17th and 18th century, the nuclear family became a pronounced feature in Western Europe. With the emergence of Proto-industrialisation and early capitalism, the nuclear family became a financially viable social unit.[4]

After the Second World War the United States experienced a renewed interest in 'the home' and building family units. The family unit became a symbol of security and a return to traditional gender roles. Distinct from the wartime period in which women held jobs conventional for men, the postwar era encouraged the notion that men should be the primary wage earners and women should spend their time cultivating the home and exerting their energy towards raising children.[5]

The biophysical concept of a nuclear family, however, may be considered natural to homo sapiens as a communal species. A 2005 archeological dig in Elau, Germany (analyzed by professor Wolfgang Haak of Adelaide University) revealed genetic evidence proving the supposition that the 13 individuals found in a grave were, in fact, closely related. Said Haak, "By establishing the genetic links between the two adults and two children buried together in one grave, we have established the presence of the classic nuclear family in a prehistoric context in Central Europe."[6]

Usage of the term

Merriam-Webster dates the term back to 1947, whilst the Oxford English Dictionary has a reference to the term from 1924, thus it is relatively new, although nuclear family structures themselves date back thousands of years.[7][8] The term "nuclear" is used in its general meaning referring to a central entity around which others collect.

In its most common usage, the term "nuclear family" refers to a household consisting of a father, a mother and their children all in one household dwelling (siblings).[9] George Murdock also describes the term in this way:

The family is a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It contains adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults.

Some also use the term to describe single-parent households and families in which the parents are a cohabiting, unmarried couple.

Extended family compared to nuclear family

Main article: Extended family

An extended family group is immediate family members living together with extra-nuclear family members such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and nieces and nephews.

Changes to family formation

The popularity of the nuclear family in the West came about in the early 20th century, prompted in part by business practices of Henry Ford, such as the "8 hour day, $5 week", and later the New Deal policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt. This enabled more and more families to be economically independent, and thus to own their own home.

File:Families US.png

Family arrangements in the US have become more diverse with no particular households arrangement being prevalent enough to be identified as the average.[10]

Current information from United States Census Bureau shows that 70% of children in the US live in traditional two-parent families, with 60% living with their biological parents, and that "the figures suggest that the tumultuous shifts in family structure since the late 1960s have leveled off since 1990.".[11]

If considered separate from couples without children, single parent families, or unmarried couples with children, in the United States traditional nuclear families appear to constitute a minority of households with rising prevalence of other family arrangements.

Family arrangements such as blended families, binuclear families (separated spouses marrying new spouses with children), and single-parent families are typically referred to as postmodern families.

Today nuclear families with the original biological parents constitute roughly 24.1% of households, compared to 40.3% in 1970.[10] Roughly 75% (or percent) of all children in the United States will spend at least some time in a single-parent household.

According to some sociologists, "[The nuclear family] no longer seems adequate to cover the wide diversity of household arrangements we see today." (Edwards 1991; Stacey 1996). A new term has been introduced, postmodern family, which is meant to describe the great variablity in family forms, including single-parent families and child-free couples."[10]

See also

External link

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).
  1. The impact of economic development on rural women in China: Family structure. The United Nations University. URL accessed on 2008-11-17.
  2. Households in villages of West Bengal (based on survey data from villages of districts around Calcutta).. URL accessed on 2008-11-17.
  3. Williams, Brian; Stacey C. Sawyer, Carl M. Wahlstrom (2005). Marriages, Families & Intinamte Relationships. Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-36674-0.
  4. Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008)
  5. Elaine Tyler May Pushing the Limits: American Women 1940-1961 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994): 54
  6. Haak, Wolfgang; Brandt, Herman; de Jong, Hylke N., Christian Meyer, Robert Ganslmeier, Volker Heyd, Chris Hawkesworth, Alistair W. G. Pike, Harald Meller, and Kurt W. Alt. (2008), "Ancient DNA, Strontium isotopes, and osteological analyses shed light on social and kinship organization of the Later Stone Age", PNAS 105 (47): 18226–18231 
  7. Grief, Avner (2005). "Family Structure, Institutions, and Growth: The Origin and Implications of Western Corporatism"
  8. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (2006). "Types of marriages in the Bible, and today"
  9. Merriam-Webster Online. ../ "Definition of nuclear family"
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Williams, Brian; Stacey C. Sawyer, Carl M. Wahlstrom (2005). Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships, Boston, MA: Pearson.
  11. includeonly>Roberts, Sam. "Most Children Still Live in Two-Parent Homes, Census Bureau Reports", February 25, 2008. Retrieved on 2008-03-05.