• Theories of the Family (Marxism for Dummies... you now what they think to your mum!)

    •Marxism is a conflict theory which sees all society’s institutions, such as the education system, the media, religion and the state, as helping to maintain class inequality and capitalism. For Marxists, therefore, the functions of the family are performed solely for the benefit of the capitalist system. This view contrasts sharply with the functionalist view that the family benefits both society as a whole and the individual members of the family

    Engels: the origin of the family

    Engels argued that the need for the family arose when societies started to value private property.

    With the rise of private property an organised system of inheritance became neces¬sary fathers needed to know who their offspring were in order to pass their property down the family line.

    With this, argues Engels, the need for monogamy arose one man married to one woman and hence the family was created. Therefore the family serves the interests of the economy in this case the creation of ownership of property – while subjecting women to unequal power relations in the home.

    However, modern research has suggested that Engels’ interpretation of the development of the family are historically inaccurate. For example, monogamous marriage and the nuclear family are often found in hunter-gatherer groups. Since humans have spent the vast majority of their existence as hunter-gatherers, the idea that the nuclear family emerged as a response to private property is unlikely.


    Functionalists such as Parsons would reject Engels view of the development of the family. Rather than being a vehicle for passing down inherited wealth, the family plays an important role in socialising the young and stabilising adult personalities. Moreover, the division of labour in families reflects the natural expressive, nurturing and caring roles of women, and the more instrumental, providing role of men.

    Zaretsky: how the family benefits capitalism

    Zaretsky suggests that the family serves capitalism by offering emotional security from the oppressive world of work, thus allowing such oppression to continue. However, in reality, it only provides emotional warmth to encourage its members to con¬tinue to live another day under the harsh realities of capitalism.


    However, the liberal feminist Jennifer Somerville argues that Zaretsky exaggerates the importance of the family as a refuge from life in capitalist society. She suggests that Zarestsky underestimates the extent of cruelty, violence and incest within families. She also argues that Zaretsky ignores the fact that during the early stages of capitalism most working class women had to take paid work in order for the family to survive, and relatively few stayed at home as full-time housewives.

    Althusser and Poulantzas: the ideological role of the family

    The family can be seen as serving the functions of an ideological state apparatus by socialising both pro-capitalist ideology and its own familiar ideology in order to maintain such family patterns over time. For example the family socialises its members into accepting gender roles, into accepting that it is 'natural' for men and women to get married and engage in separate roles and jobs in the home: an atti¬tude that is passed down from generation to generation.


    However, feminists argue that Althusser and Poulantzas ignore the fact that such a family ideology supports patriarchy since it suggests that men and women should have different roles in the family and society roles that lead to the subordination of women to men. Similarly, functionalists reject the view that the family socialises children into capitalist ideology. Instead, the family enables children to internalise the culture of society to enable them to become effective functioning adults.

    Overall evaluation of Marxist theories

    •Marxist views of the family follow logically from Marxist theory. If, for example, the family provides emotional support for workers, then this helps them to accept the injustices of the capitalist system. This makes sense if capitalism is seen as essentially unjust. However, many sociologists reject this view of capitalism and, as a result, Marxist view of the family.

    •Feminists argue that the Marxist emphasis on social class and capitalism underestimates the importance of gender inequalities within the family. For feminists, the family primarily serves the interests of men rather than capitalism.

    •By contrast, functionalists argue that Marxists ignore the very real benefits that the family provides for its members, such as intimacy and mutual support.

    •From an interpretivist point of view, Marxists tend to neglect the meanings families have for individuals and how family members interpret family relationships. For example, Marxists ignore accounts of family life in which some females suggest motherhood is a fulfilling and rewarding experience.

    1 Comment

    • 1. Sep 24 2013 6:10PM by donna lee

      good reading

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