The Risk Family: A Disturbing Cost of Post-Modernity

(This research essay, focusing on risks, is a partial requirement in a Sociology course: Key Concepts Socio-Analysis.)


Society’s progression processes continue to change along with risks in a gradual to swift manner over time. Discussions and debates about modernity primarily focus on the effects and changes in social structures, mainly the economy, government, and education, specifically science and technology. Such modernization changes people’s way of life, creating new cultures. To the extent of modern social processes, explicitly post-modernity, the family as one of the primary institutions is the most vulnerable social organization in our contemporary civilization, which is always at the forefront of social ramifications and modification’s treacherous forces.   

Undeniably, the family system is the first and foremost social unit affected by modernization. Yet, there are no significant numbers of scholarly articles regarding the family’s future as the bedrock of social organizations. My research essay examines the harmful effects of modernity on society’s very foundation – the family. It analyzes the danger that is critically fronting the family system, putting each family at risk. Toward the end, my paper will also describe several advantages of family reorganization and detraditionalization to acclaim some positive effects of the aforesaid social processes.

Literature Review

Before the twentieth century, the generally accepted world view of a family was perhaps patriarchal (Adams 2010, 499), the father’s or husband’s rule in that respect (Therborn 2004, 13 cited in Adams 2010, 499). Adams (2010) also explains that patriarchy, in other words, means that the adult male, as head of the family, controls the children and women and represents the family in the more extensive community functions (499). However, the modern [and post-modern] families continuously undergo disorganization or reorganization driven by material cultural conditions (Bernard 1928, 427). The material cultural condition describes the entirety of physical objects and resources humans use for survival, such as social institutions, money, and the means of production; it also defines social relationships representing facets of human identity (Bernard 1928, 429-432). Here, Bernard illustrates that even more than a hundred years in the past, family life continuously changes and undergoes disorganization or restructuring, driven by modernization. Contemporarily, the process of modernity broke down the small community’s and tradition’s protective framework, replaced by much larger impersonal organizations, such as modern industries or globalization of economic activities (Giddens 1991, 33). Thus, no one would disagree that risks are part and parcel of such social processes as the family benefits from them. The family, then, should demonstrate reflexivity to co-exist or synchronize with modernization.

During the pre-modern and modern economies, the family’s economic roles restructured family life. Significant changes such as patriarchy’s weakening dominance due to changing gender roles and giving women’s opportunities for education are prime forces of modernization, resetting patriarchy’s parameters (Adams 2010, 500).  Due to migration in search of a better life, everyday economic activities mobilize family members within or across national borders, explore job opportunities, adopt new cultures, and eventually affect family relationships. Such changes brought by modern technologies, particularly computers, cell phones, and media communications, impact family life and are unpredictable, ruining the core of intimate family relationships.

Consequently, Adams (2010) posits that globalism is an ongoing development that continuously affects family life, illustrated by the emergence of other family types such as cohabitation, single-parent, or same-sex relationships caused by the patriarchal collapse or traditional family disruption (503). In this sense, post-modernity demonstrates the family system’s shifting patterns, depicting risks in each turn, for two reasons: liberalization of relationships (Fox 2015, 205) or sexuality (Kozak 2011, 74 & 77) and individualization, meaning the collapse of trust in others (Kozak 2011, 73 &77; Burgess 2018, 91), which results to family conflicts, marital divorce, separation or family breakdown.  Kozak (2011) argues that rapid changes in all aspects of human life in post-modernity cannot ignore the prevalent shift in marital and family life, introducing chaos or risks into personal relationships’ set of norms and standards in the context of subjectivity (73 & 79).

Furthermore, in any given conflict in marital and family life, the children have left victims of such broken relationships, driving them to leave their homes to find peace and security anywhere else and taking risks of doing so. This notion exemplifies the connection of broken family relationships to youth homelessness, an excellent example of disrupted or troubled family life in our contemporary time. Mabhala et al. (2017) reveal that the final stage of becoming homeless is a complete relationship collapse with those they live in (8), thus exhibiting family disconnections.  In a study, Mallett et al. (2005) argue that in all pathways out of home, the presence of family conflict, if not family breakdown, is implicated or engrained (185-186). The investigation clarifies that the increasing focus on individualization and household life’s changing nature poses risks to families in our post-modern time that conveys family dysfunction and relationship withdrawal. The authors recognize that:

“While family breakdown and the desire for independence were clearly experienced as personal issues, they also reflect social phenomena associated with significant changes to modern family life, particularly in western contexts. Like other domains of our lives (e.g. school, work), the family has increasingly become an arena of choice and individual decision making. Within the family, prescribed roles, responsibilities, obligations and commitments are increasingly contested and negotiated (197).”

The most compelling and dynamic repercussion of the post-modernity epoch is individualization, a process of ‘taking charge of one’s life’ (Giddens 1991, 73) or ‘making a life of one’s own’ (Burgess 2018, 87). In “Individualization Revisited: Global Family Developments, Uncertainty and Risk,” Adam Burgess (2018) reaffirms that individualization constitutes risks through a comparative review of marriage and family as social institutions in affluent countries, such as China, the United States, and Japan, asserting individualization affects or distresses marriage and family life in the modern economy (88-91). He further describes the emerging family forms and identifies diverse familial relationships, such as cohabitation and solo living, while defining the ‘commitment of the self and establishing an obligation to another become a risk to the autonomous individual’ (92). Burgess concludes that a more explicit and potential link between individualization and risk creating uncertainty, from which we are more prone to making risk (93).

Theoretical Framework and Key Ideas

Anthony Gidden’s (with Ulrich Beck) notion of risk society and Ulrich Beck’s concept of risk society modernity, individualization, and Gidden’s pure relationship, are central to the framing of its empirical analysis.  First, the risk society explains that the transitional period from pre-industrial to an industrial society focuses on preventing risks alongside the processes (Lupton 2013, 78-79). Lupton (2013) further pronounces that wealth production always accompanies risk and proliferates as modernization’s outcome, which means Western societies’ main problem is preventing or mitigating those risks (78-79). An excellent example of this is globalization, illustrating no difficulty producing and distributing ‘goods’ through high-tech manufacturing facilities and efficient transportation systems. However, climate change is a global risk associated with manufacturing ‘goods,’ involving every society in its preventive measures to mitigate the global warming problem, which is an unintended side-effect of modernization processes.

Second, reflexive modernity denotes self-confrontation associated with modernization processes, which involves seeing itself as a risk society along with a growing realization of the dangers involved (Beck 1996b, 28 cited in Lupton 2013, 86). Third, the individualization concept is the core of reflexive modernity that transforms and frees individuals of social norms and accepted roles, such as gender and class (Beck 1992b, 87ff. cited in Lupton 2013, 89). It tells us that in pre-modern society, one’s destiny is expected because it is pre-structured through one’s life situation at birth, unlike today, we have to work hard for our opulence or fortune.

The fourth key concept is self-actualization which implies controlling time, setting a personal time zone with remote links with external temporal orders, and understanding the balance between risk and opportunity (Giddens 1991, 77-78). In this sense, if one wants a better life, he/she has to take chances. It also shows that deliberate rejection of risk-taking limits personal growth while remaining trapped in a particular situation (78). Successful persons in different fields of endeavours, such as entrepreneurs or business people, professionals, book writers, and journalists, are excellent examples of risk-takers who have gone through self-actualization.

Lastly, the pure relationship (Giddens 1991) is unanchored in external conditions of social or economic life – it is, as it were, free-floating (89). Commitment (92) and intimacy (94) play a fundamental role in sexuality, marriage, and friendship domains (98). This theory reverberates my discussions on family life and relationships, implying a solid bond for the family to stick together.

Common Themes

Alongside modernization projects, a shift in family life occurs, generating a new structural paradigm. Given modernity’s strong influence, four thematic concepts emerge from the literature: family detraditionalization, the decline of patriarchy, the emergence of alternative family models, security versus identity change, and family breakdown. The family detraditionalization is a paradigm shift from the traditional to post-modern life that disorganizes, reframes, restructures, or reshapes the family system due to the uncontrollable rapids of the physical culture modernity. The family structural shift began during women’s freedom from domestic confinement, by which the dominance of the patriarchy started to decline. The decline of patriarchy describes the period of women’s liberalization and access to education and modernization that narrowed down male dominance parameters, breaking down gender traditional roles and family values.

The focus on individuality and the desire for independence allows alternative family models to emerge. Examples are cohabitation, solo-living, partnership, common-law union, same-sex union, and single-parent family that substitute the traditional family: husband and wife with their child/ren. These modern family compositions trash the conventional and ideal meaning of a family and personal security. The theme ‘security versus identity change’ clarifies that family members’ security from the traditional form succumbs to risks and uncertainties in exchange for ‘being true to oneself, a moral thread of self-actualization’ (Giddens 1991, 78). The feminists’ view of liberalization, reinforced by individualism and self-actualization, inspires the change in one’s identity. For instance, from a plain homemaker to a career woman or change in social status because of acquired education.

Individualism and democratic family life reproduce risks and uncertainties. If not family breakdown, family conflicts occur as the upshot of unhealthy relationships among family members, especially between parents or husbands and wives; thus, a collapse in relationships, resulting in family dysfunction. There are multi-faceted instances demonstrating relationship breakdowns, such as marital divorce and separation, children and youths homelessness, parental divorce, and a broadcast court battles between parent/s and son/daughter/children or among siblings. Television reality shows like Judge Judy Sheindlin and Judge Greg Mathis portray relationship breakdowns in family court proceedings. Thus, modernity ruins human relationships, particularly in the family as the primary unit of society.


Not all risks are dangers; for some, it might be a good motivation. Managing one’s own life involves risks as it confronts diverse and open possibilities (Giddens 1991, 73). In this sense, risk-takers have a realization that there is a balance between risks and opportunities (Giddens 1991, 78). For instance, Feminists take risks to advocate the egalitarian family system. They also support the detraditionalization of families through equality of the sexes. The benefits are but are not limited to equal access to education, equal job opportunities or economic independence, and the balancing of family or household roles. The liberalization of sexuality brings women to freedom from domestic slavery and other traditional obligations that shake the family’s very foundation (Kozak 2011, 74).

This detraditionalization also illustrates the breaking down of patriarchy and the traditional gender roles, inspiring women’s personality development and individuality. Moreso, women reclaim a significant degree of freedom of movement and choice, such as decision-making and personal life planning (Bernard 1928, 436). However, intersectionality based on socio-economic status, gender, sexuality, race, and social position affect such claims for social equality. Modernity through the faces of technological advancement, modern industries, and globalization of economies are huge factors driving families and individuals to move and live in cities as a haven of unbounded opportunities. Thus, modernization implies a city life toward a metropolitan and cosmopolitan life described by sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918). Urban or metropolitan life demonstrates a money culture that frees us from a special relationship like economic dependence from others, for instance, between husbands and wives. Wordly (cosmopolitan) life (Lupton 2013, 93-96) is our desire to be part of the large entity beyond our own culture, such as striving to live in a multicultural nation. The question is how these phases of modernity affect the family?

  The modernity phases disrupt the family organization and loyalties and damage its unity; the lack of unison is within the home, and divorce increases (Bernard 1928, 432) which is socially acceptable. As a training place for socialized attitudes, loyalties, and ideals, the family lost much of its hold upon the young, wondering if the new generation will be capable parents in the future (Bernard 1928, 432-433). Material culture causes the reorganization or detraditionalization of the family, which is an outcome of modernity. Therefore, this material culture modernity explicitly affects the relationships of family members by fitting into the emerging urban, and worldly life explained in the previous section,

The material culture or modern economy, the physical and social environments developed by post-modernity, produces a new world institutionally, especially in the non-institution culture, for instance, marriage. Thus, the development of new material culture is the fundamental and indirect cause of family transformation – the family is a part of a non-material and institutional culture that arises in conformity to the new culture (Bernard 1928, 429). The risk brought by the material culture also includes a change in non-material things such as human behaviours, values, beliefs, and norms, among others, which refers to individualization  (Burgess 2018; Lupton 2013, 89-92) and one’s longing for independence. Lupton (2013) briefly explains:

“Individualization is therefore fraught with risk, according to Beck. With the breakdown of many of the traditional certainties structured through age, gender and social class, a plurality of new risks is generated, including unemployment or under-employment, marital stability and family breakdown, accompanied by high levels of anxiety and insecurity. Life becomes less certain even while it is placed more under one’s control (92).”

“The reflexivity of modernity extends into the core of self, as the self becomes a reflexive project (Giddens 1991, 32 & 75).” The material culture describes the industrial society, which becomes a risk society. Individuals living in this kind of society have a greater awareness of risk, which forces them to deal with the risk daily (Lupton 2013, 78-79). In a risk society, individualization is a requirement for reflexivity. It is also an outcome of modernization processes, reducing the traditional structuring institution’s influence on personal identity formation (Lupton 2013, 89). Individualization, in personal relationships, creates more significant conflict between individuals in intimate relationships attempting the right to autonomy, self-improvement, self-empowerment while maintaining the relationship (Lupton 2013, 89-92).

In time, the individualization process leads to self-actualization, balancing opportunity and risk (Giddens 1991, 78). It implies control over time and sets a personal time zone out of the external temporal order. Therefore, the relationship must consist of an element of purity, which means “not anchored in external conditions of social or economic life – it is, as it were, free-floating” (Giddens 1991, 89-94) in which commitment and intimacy play a pivotal role. In such instances, the pure relationship among individuals is an extension of modernity’s reflexivity as an ongoing project. Therefore, a pure relationship is highly reflexive, requires maintenance through constant work and presupposes ‘commitment’ won and negotiated based on ‘intimacy’ (Lupton 2013, 107). However, to strengthen all these, a relationship depends on winning mutual trust like the commitment between partners. Yet, Burgess (2018) sees ‘commitment’ becomes a risk because it establishes an obligation to another (92). The perfect example of this is the commitment and responsibilities that the relationship between a family requires.

Post-modern life’s material culture is the main challenge of Giddens’ (1991) pure relationship idea. Instead of mutual commitment and intimacy, modern relationship primarily focuses on mutual gains or material satisfaction, which breaks one’s promise easily if unmet. The pure relationship is challenging to maintain because it is reflexively organized (91), depends on mutual trust (96), and dyadic, although not limited to two-person settings (97), forming its relationships interconnections in the family system. Reflectively, an individual life course is a series of ‘passages,’ by which the family or its members has no exemption. Giddens(1991) enlightens us with his wisdom:

“The life course is seen as a series of ‘passages.’ The individual is likely, or has to go through them, but they are not institutionalized, or accompanied by formalized rites. All such transitions involve loss(as well as, usually, potential gain) and such losses – as in the case of marital separation – have to be mourned if self-actualization is to proceed on course. Life passages give particular cogency to the interaction of risk and opportunity [in his discussion about the trajectory of the self] – especially, although by no means exclusively, when they are in the substantial degree initiated by the individual whom they affect. Negotiating a significant transition in life, leaving home, getting a new job, facing up to unemployment, forming a new relationship, moving between different areas of routines, confronting illness, beginning therapy – all mean running consciously entertained risks in order to grasp the new opportunities which personal crisis open up (79).”


The shifts in economic activities require the family’s reflexivity to allow its current demands, which involve a significant amount and degrees of risks. This paper also resounds the effects of ongoing city life trends on family life more than a century ago. I find it worth connecting to a post-modern family, giving a historical background of the family in dealing with modernity as a social unit. Families are ‘economic shock absorbers’ for the working class for a long time due to economic insecurity entrenched in the modernization of industries (Newman 2012, xxiii quoted Fox 2015, 205). Thus, the family has no option for the very reason of survival, for instance, housing and food provision and children’s education. Modernity does not only sway families’ sustenance needs; instead, modern life’s most alarming effect is the ongoing self-identity change among family members.

The Feminist movement plays an essential role in the detraditionalization of family. It advocates a more democratic modern family, emphasizing freed women’s roles from traditional family life incarceration, asserting gender equality, rights, freedom, and economic independence from men. The most significant change, so far, is the women’s increased educational and employment opportunities (Adams 2010, 503). However, those achievements come along with risks; for instance, parenting failure and economic insecurity also entail postponing the assumed commitment and marital obligation posing marriage and family risk altogether, creating additional probable risk of family brokenness – divorce – and low birth rates associated with birth control and the high cost of rearing children (Fox 2015, 206-208). Yet, the most disturbing about women’s sexual liberalization is that ‘most young women’s interest in [ ] men is primarily entertainment rather than marriage (Bernard 1928, 439), observed more than a century ago and most likely true in our current times. Such objectivity reflects the embodiment of their desire for independence and freedom and individualization.

  Individualization (sense of freedom) and self-actualization (levelling of opportunities and risks) play an enormous role in post-modern relationships. This change swings towards self-fulfillment in an individualist’s context (Burgess 2018, 90). The parents and their children’s assertive personalities are kernels of family conflicts or risks that, if not critically managed, stretched each other’s relationship toward a family breakdown and dysfunctional family. Those social processes destroy family relationships, loyalties (Bernard 1928, 436), and good values ingrained in the traditional orientation to keep family intact. Policymakers and service providers need careful thoughts in addressing this changing family life described by increasing focus on individualization (Mallett et al. 2005, 197). “If the family, as the primary basis of social organization, is to be kept intact, it will require the most diligent efforts and thoughts of the social scientists and social workers (Bernard 1928, 442).” This context resonates with careful policing and appropriate social services legislated through sociological studies backing.

At this point, discussions on risk and modernity only focus on the new material culture brought by post-modernity that affects the much larger impersonal institutions than the family as the foundation of all social organizations. Therefore, I argue that modernity, the destructive force of human relationships, uses the same power that situates every family at a greater risk. It constantly changes humans’ physical and social landscape, while the risk family is the unseen or ignored invention of post-modernity. As our society’s bedrock, the policymakers,  sociologists, and other social scientists must equally focus their attention on families’ social conditions to mindfully regain more outstanding social order by setting parameters in the practice of individual rights and freedom. It is also worth noting that a relationship constitutes a democratic dyad of rights and obligations, which is a more likely significant reminder or prompt to people who decide to start a family in our modern time.

Given the idea that “the threats of modernization are irreversible’ (Beck 1992b, 13 cited in Lupton 2013, 79), the only apposite and relevant policing based on extensive multi-disciplinary studies is the possible action to mitigate post-modernity’s adverse consequences to family life. Considerably, in the context of family, if we chose to have one, containment or inhibition of some of our freedom, up to the extent of sacrificing them, is a requirement to keep our families intact. Otherwise, the family will remain an at-risk family, producing at-risk children and creating a risk generation, as it could not function harmoniously with reflexive modernity and risk society. Despite study limitations, this paper offers an opportunity to investigate the risk family extensively, as a new sociological concept, in our post-modern life. Risk family, as I suggest, is a process of family detraditionalization as an outcome of modernization projects accompanying expanded risks or tensions in family life. I also recommend exploring the power relationship between family members and finding ways of reconciling them.



Adams, Bert N. 2010. “Themes and Threads of Family Theories: A Brief History.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 41, no. 4: 499–505.

Bernard. Luther L. 1928. “The Family in Modern Life.” International Journal of Ethics.38 no. 4: 427–442.

Burgess, Adam. 2018. “Individualization Revisited: Global Family Developments, Uncertainty and Risk.” Journal of Risk Research 21, no. 1: 83–95.

Fox, Bonnie. 2015. “Feminism on Family Sociology: Interpreting Trends in Family Life: Feminism on Family Sociology.” The Canadian Review of Sociology 52, no. 2: 204–11.

Giddens, Anthony. 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modernity. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Kozak, Agata. 2011. “Post-Modern Changes in Marital and Family Life.” Journal of Education, Culture and Society 2, no. 1: 73–79.

Lupton, Deborah. 2013. Risk, Second Edition. New York: Routledge.

Mabhala, Mzwandile A., Asmait Yohannes, and Mariska Griffith. 2017. “Social Conditions of Becoming Homelessness: Qualitative Analysis of Life Stories of Homeless Peoples.” International Journal for Equity in Health 16(1):150–150. DOI: 10.1186/s12939.

Mallett, Shelley, Doreen Rosenthal, and Deborah Keys. 2005. “Young People, Drug Use and Family Conflict: Pathways into Homelessness.” Journal of Adolescence (London, England.) 28, no. 2: 185–99.

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