Notes on the Nuclear Family

Be advised these are not proper “notes” but more like a slapdash pileup of sources on the subject, loosely categorized, and sprinkled with the occasional quotes and bullet points. I figure they can be a starting point for anyone interested in investigating further. More or less a response to this conversation. Crossposted. Updated 9/17/19.


  • Ariès, Philippe. 1962. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Bartlett, Katharine T. 1984. “Rethinking Parenthood as an Exclusive Status: The Need for Legal Alternatives When the Premise of the Nuclear Family Has Failed.” Virginia Law Review.
    • “According to traditional parental rights doctrine, applied still in many states, the state will not recognize relationships formed by adults other than the child’s legal parents unless the legal parents are unfit or have abandoned the child.”
  • Collins, Patricia Hill. “Black Women and Motherhood.” Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge, 2000. [see othermothers and related twitter thread]
  • Hansen, Karen V. 2005. Not-so-Nuclear Families: Class, Gender, and Networks of Care. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.
    • “This research challenges the widespread assumption that nuclear families raise children without help.”
  • Georgas, James, Kostas Mylonas, Tsabika Bafiti, and Ype H. Poortinga. n.d. “Functional Relationships in the Nuclear and Extended Family: A 16-Culture Study.” International Journal of Psychology 36 (5). Accessed April 7, 2019.
  • Gerstel, Naomi. 2011. “Rethinking Families and Community: The Color, Class, and Centrality of Extended Kin Ties1: Rethinking Families and Community.” Sociological Forum 26 (1): 1–20.
    • “Although a focus on marriage and the nuclear family characterizes much sociological research and social commentary, this article suggests that this focus ignores the familial experiences of many Americans, particularly those on the lower end of the economic spectrum for whom extended kin are central. African Americans and Latinos/as are more involved with kin than whites, but class trumps race in this regard: African Americans, Latinos/as, and whites with fewer economic resources rely more on extended kin than do those more affluent. The emphasis on marriage and the nuclear family may actually promulgate a vision of family life that dismisses the very social resources and community ties that are critical to the survival strategies of those in need. In contrast to those who have argued that marriage is the foundation of the community or even, in that overused phrase, the “basic unit of society,” this article suggests that marriage actually detracts from social ties to broader communities just as an emphasis on marriage and the nuclear family, to the exclusion of the extended family, distorts and reduces the power and reach of social policy.”
  • James, S. M. (1993). “Mothering: A possible Black feminist link to social transformation?” In J. B. Cole & A. P. A. Busia (Eds.), Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women. Psychology Press. [see othermothers and related twitter thread]
  • Jay, David. 2017. “My Path To Becoming A Third Parent.” The Establishment (blog). October 10, 2017.
    • It’s David Jay. Yes, that David Jay.
    • Interesting personal narrative of nonblood parenthood that doesn’t involve a romantic/sexual relationship to the other parents.
  • Jones, Anne C. 2003. “Reconstructing the Stepfamily: Old Myths, New Stories.” Social Work 48 (2).
    • “The privileged status accorded to biological parentage serves to restrict society’s thinking about the nature of families and parenting roles.”
  • Pilkauskas, Natasha V., and Christina Cross. 2018. “Beyond the Nuclear Family: Trends in Children Living in Shared Households.” Demography 55 (6): 2283–97.
    • Documents a rise in “three-generation households.”


  • Brake, Elizabeth. 2012. Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law. Oxford University Press.
    • Origin of the term “amatonormativity.”
  • Brake, Elizabeth. 2017. “Amatonormativity.” Elizabeth Brake (blog). August 29, 2017.
    • Basic introductory explanation at the link.
  • Brake, Elizabeth. 2018. “Do Subversive Weddings Challenge Amatonormativity? Polyamorous Weddings and Romantic Love Ideals.” New Series, no. 11: 24.
  • Coontz, Stephanie. 1992. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
    • Very important classic book on this topic. Go-to starter.
  • Glendon, Mary Ann. 1981. The New Family and the New Property. Toronto: Butterworths.
  • Macfarlane, Alan. 2018. “Individualism and the Ideology of Romantic Love.” In Rethinking The Subject: An Anthology Of Contemporary European Social Thought, edited by James Faubion. Routledge.
  • Clarke, A. E., & Haraway, D. (Eds.). (2018). Making kin not population: reconceiving generations. Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press.
    • Anthology with several pieces on topics like monogamy and colonialism.

Marriage/Gay & Queer Criticism

  • Ettelbrick, Paula. 1989. “Since When Is Marriage a Path to Liberation?” Out/Look: National Lesbian & Gay Quarterly 6: 14–16.
    • Available at the link.Presents a critique of the idea that same-sex marriage is a good idea for the gay community. Anti-assimilationist. Note that this was published during the 1980s. “Marriage creates a two-tier system that allows the state to regulate relationships. It has become a facile mechanism for employers to dole out benefits, for businesses to provide special deals and incentives,and for the law to make distinctions in distributing meager public funds. None of these entities bothers to consider the relationships among people, the love, respect, and need to protect that exists among all kinds of family members.”
  • Gutterman, Lauren Jae. 2012. “Another Enemy Within: Lesbian Wives, or the Hidden Threat to the Nuclear Family in Post-War America.” Gender & History 24 (2): 475–501.
    • Investigates 1950s era alarmism in America over the idea that some women married to men might actually be lesbians—and how that’s a threat to “the family.”Interesting discussion here of lesbianism and “sexual frigidity” (toward a husband). Easy to make the connection here to asexuality.
  • Lehr, Valerie. 1999. Queer Family Values: Debunking the Myth of the Nuclear Family. Temple University Press.
    • “The current narrative of family contains values and assumptions that are historically rooted in the development and consolidation of liberal industrial capitalism in the early 1900s.”Includes a discussion of marriage & sexual consummation laws.
  • Marso, L. J. (2010). Marriage and Bourgeois Respectability. Politics & Gender, 6(01), 145.
    • “I focus here on what I consider one of the most troubling aspects of marriage for feminists, one highlighted by Simone de Beauvoir in her classic and still timely critique of marriage in The Second Sex (1952): the fact that marriage automatically confers bourgeois respectability on its participants. Even as we oppose antigay marriage legislation and recognize that marriage can protect vulnerable parties by guaranteeing health care, equity upon divorce, tax benefits, and so forth, feminists must continue to refuse the bourgeois respectability that is so deeply linked with the institution of marriage. Having the state accord legitimacy to some kinds of intimate relationships and consensual sex, but not others, goes against basic ideas of feminist freedom articulated most convincingly, I argue, by Beauvoir. While arguing this position, however, I will also ask whether only the relatively privileged are able to refuse the bourgeois respectability that marriage promises.”

Capitalism/Social Reproduction Theory

  • Bhattacharya, Tithi. n.d. “What Is Social Reproduction Theory?” SocialistWorker.Org. Accessed April 7, 2019.
    • Basic introductory explanation at the link.
    • Marxist & feminist influence here is pretty central.
  • Bhattacharya, Tithi, and Lise Vogel, eds. 2017. Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. London: Pluto Press.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1973. “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction.” In .
  • Hall, Rebecca. 2016. “Caring Labours as Decolonizing Resistance.” Studies in Social Justice 10 (2): 220–37.
    • “Indigenous scholars have discussed the non-nuclear structure of care in Indigenous households (see e.g., Anderson & Lawrence, 2003) – a structure that the Canadian State has attempted to undermine with varying levels of success through policies and practices of surveillance, rupture, and punishment. This includes the forced relocation of nomadic communities into permanent settlements with single-dwelling homes, welfare policies that require nuclear families, and the contemporary surveillance of Indigenous families through social service programming (Anderson, 2003; Martin-Hill,2003).” 
  • Luparello, Velia Sabrina. 2017. “Aborto y capitalismo: un análisis de las políticas de control poblacional y de desarrollo económico en América Latina desde la mirada de la Teoría de la Reproducción Social.” Diálogos Revista Electrónica 18 (2): 103–20.
  • Zaretsky, Eli. 1976. Capitalism, the Family & Personal Life. New York: Harper & Row.


  • Laslett, Barbara. 1973. “The Family as a Public and Private Institution: An Historical Perspective.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 35 (3): 480.
  • Phillips, Richard. 2009. “Settler Colonialism and the Nuclear Family.” The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 53 (2): 239–53.
    • “Colonial societies revolved around nuclear families.Though they often seemed natural, universal and inevitable, colonial nuclear families were in fact produced through a series of laws and customs that regulated sex and marriage. These legal, social and cultural practices conspired to make the family an adaptable and formidable social institution, both a pillar and a beneficiary of colonization. Hegemonic but not universal, family members were privileged over other members of colonial societies, who not only survived on the margins and in the shadows of colonialism, but also played crucial roles in resettlement societies.”
  • Reay, Barry. 1996. “Kinship and the Neighborhood in Nineteenth-Century Rural England: The Myth of the Autonomous Nuclear Family.” Journal of Family History 21 (1): 87–104.
    • “Over time, then, at least as many households in the area went through an extended phase as experienced only the simple family structure, and for some socio-occupational groups, the complex household was more common. This does not undermine any interpretation that stresses the importance of the simple family structure in English social history, but it does have implications for what David Cressy has termed ‘fixation with the nuclear family.’ The extended family was not unimportant in nineteenth-century England if these Kent communities are any indication.”
  • Shorter, Edward. 1975. The Making of the Modern Family. New York: Basic Books.
  • Smith, Daniel Scott. 1993. “The Curious History of Theorizing about the History of the Western Nuclear Family,” 30.
  • The Week Staff. 2012. “How Marriage Has Changed over Centuries.” June 1, 2012.
    • Available at the link.
  • Uzoka, Azubike F. 1979. “The Myth of the Nuclear Family: Historical Background and Clinical Implications.” American Psychologist 34 (11): 1095–1106.
    • “ABSTRACT: This article explores the framework from which the nuclear concept of family organization emerged. The studies and evidence reviewed indicate that the nuclear conception of the family is inadequate, misleading, and extremely pernicious when relied on for an understanding of the dynamics of family functioning or as a guide for therapeutic intervention. The author notes the role of clinical practitioners and psychological theorists in fostering the nuclear myth. An emerging transactional and extended perspective on the family is presented, and the consequences and clinical implications of the nuclear mythology are examined.”


  • Barrett, Michèle, and Mary McIntosh. 2015. The Anti-Social Family. London: Verso.
  • Hare-Mustin, Rachel T. 1981. “Myths and Assertions about the Family.” American Psychologist 36 (3): 312–13.
  • Kitzinger, Celia. 2005. “Heteronormativity in Action: Reproducing the Heterosexual Nuclear Family in After-Hours Medical Calls.” Social Problems 52 (4): 477–98.
    • “When callers are identified as spouses or parents, the doctor makes an assumption of co-residence, whereas when they are otherwise identified, he does not.” 
    • “The doctor in these calls routinely displays an assumption that any adult calling for a child, thereby demonstrably engaged in an act of caring on her or his behalf, is that child’s parent.” 
    • “Non-familial callers are not expected to have intimate knowledge of the patient.”
  • Skolnick, Arlene S., and Jerome H. Skolnick. 1974. Intimacy, Family, and Society. Boston: Little, Brown.
  • Thorne, Barrie, and Marilyn Yalom. 1992. Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions. Boston: Notheastern University Press.
  • Widmer, Eric, and Riitta Jallinoja. 2008. Beyond the Nuclear Family: Families in a Configurational Perspective. Peter Lang.
  • Unmarried Equality

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