• Theories of the Family (Functionalism For Dummies!)

    The relationship of the family to the social structure and social change

    •Functionalist views: the importance of the nuclear family, the universality of the family, changing functions, how the nuclear family ‘fits’ modern society.

    •Marxist views: the family as part of the ideological state apparatus, as an agent of social control.

    •Feminist views: patriarchy; liberal, radical and Marxist feminism.

    Consensus/Positive views of the family

    •Functionalist theories: the family performs positive functions for individuals and society

    •New Right theories: the family is the cornerstone of society, but it is under threat

    Conflict/critical views of the family

    •Marxist theories: the family provides important functions for capitalism

    •Feminist theories: the family reinforces gender inequality and patriarchy

    Functionalist theories

    GP Murdock

    Murdock argues that the family is a universal institution (it exists everywhere) that performs four major functions:

    •Stable satisfaction of the sex drive with the same partner, preventing the social disruption caused by sexual ‘free-for-all’.

    •Reproduction of the next generation, without which society would not be able to continue.

    •Socialisation of the young into society’s shared norms and values.

    •Meeting its members’ economic needs, such as shelter and food.


    Other sociologists have criticised his functionalist approach. Marxists and Feminists reject his 'rose-tinted' consensus view that the family meets the needs of both wider society and all members of the family. They argue that functionalism neglects conflict and exploitation:

    For example, feminists see the family as serving the needs of men and oppressing women. Similarly, Marxists argue that it meets the needs of capitalism, not those of family members or society as a whole.

    Talcott Parsons: the functions of the family

    Parsons believes that every family in every society has two 'basic and irreducible' functions: the primary socialisation of children and the stabilisation of adult personalities. The initial or primary socialisa¬tion takes place in the early years of a child's life within the family group. During this period the child learns the basic elements of the culture into which she or he has been born.


    However, Parsons view of the socialisation process can be criticised for being too deterministic, with children being pumped full of culture and their personalities being moulded by all-powerful adults. He ignores the possibility of socialisation being a two-way process in which roles are negotiated or that attempts at socialisation can be resisted by children.

    Parsons then aruges.

    The second basic and irreducible function is the stabilisation of the adult's personality. The family gives the individual adult a 'safety valve', a place where she or he can relax, escape the stresses and strains of the world outside and feel emotionally secure.


    However, the Marxist Zaretsky argues that the family only provides this emotional support in order to encourage its members to con¬tinue to work another day under the harsh realities of capitalism. The family is therefore a servant of the capitalist state which looks after the needs of exploited workers at no cost to employers.

    Talcott Parsons: the theory of ‘fit’

    Parsons argues that the dominant structure of the family best suits the needs of the economy at the time. This means that nuclear families ‘fit’ an industrial economy because they are geographically mobile and not reliant on wider kin. This is because family members can easily move to new centres of production. Parsons concludes that only the nuclear family could provide the achievement-orientated and geographically mobile workforce required by modern economies.


    However, according to Wilmott and Young, the pre-industrial family tended to be nuclear, not extended as claimed by Parsons, with parents and children working together in cottage industries such as weaving. They also argues that the hardship of the early industrialised period gave rise to the mother-centred working class extended family, based on ties between mothers and their married daughters, who relied on each other for financial, practical and emotional support.

    Similarly, Tamara Hareven concludes that the extended family, not the nuclear as claimed by Parsons, was the structure best equipped to meet the needs of early industrial society. Her research showed how extended migrant families in America in the 19th century acted as a source of support and mutual aid, as well as promoting geographical mobility by helping newcomers to find work.

    Overall evaluation of functionalist theories

    1.Functionalist analyses of the nuclear family tend to be based on middle class and American versions of the family and they consequently neglect other influences such as ethnicity, social class or religion. For example, Parsons does not consider the fact that wealth or poverty may determine whether women stay at home to after children or not. Since parsons wrote in the in the 1950s, many western societies, including the UK, have become multicultural. Religious and ethnic subcultural differences may mean that Parsons’ version of the family is no longer relevant in contemporary society.

    2.Feminists argue that as a result of this picture of the family, functionalists tend to ignore the ‘dark side’ of the family – conflict between husband and wife, male dominance, child abuse, and so on. They give insufficient attention to the dysfunctions of the family – the harmful effects it may have on the wider society.

    3.From an interpretivist point of view, functionalists tend to neglect the meanings families have for individuals and how family members interpret family relationships.


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