From the functionalist point of view, the institution of the family helps meet the needs of its members and contributes to the stability of the society at large. In this view, marriage is seen as a mutually beneficial exchange between members of two genders, each of which enacts traditional gender roles, with women receiving protection, economic support, and status from their husbands and men receiving emotional and sexual support, household maintenance, and the production of children from their wives. Functionalists view the social institution of the family as breaking down under the strains being experienced by society as a result of rapid social change. From the functionalist perspective, trends such as single parent families, families with a female head of household, and the high rate of divorce that are experienced in many societies today are a result of the breakdown and disorganization of the institution of the family. There are, however, a number of serious criticisms of the functionalist perspective of the family — in particular that it does not take into account many of the realities of postmodern life.
Keywords Extended Family; Feminism; Functionalism; Gender; Gender Inequality; Gender Role; Industrialization; Norms; Nuclear Family; Postindustrial; Status; Social Change; Social Institution; Socialization; Society; Sociocultural Evolution
Family Functions: A Structural-Functional Analysis
Social scientists use the term "family" to refer to a number of different social groups. A nuclear family, for example, is defined as a married couple and their unmarried children living under one roof. This rather restricted group is called "nuclear" because it is the nucleus around which other, larger familial groups center. For example, an extended family includes the nuclear family in addition to any other family members (e.g., grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles) that live together under one roof. Although this type of family was more prevalent in previous centuries, it still occurs today and theoretically offers the family members greater social support. However, just as the percentage of extended familial living arrangements has declined over time, so, too, has the percentage of nuclear familial living arrangements, particularly in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The number of single parent families is on the rise not only in the United States, but in other postindustrial societies as well due in part to such factors as high divorce rates and the decision of some individuals to have children outside of marriage. Many people today also view committed homosexual couples as families, regardless of their legal marital status, as well as committed heterosexual couples who have chosen not to get married. The definition of "family" also becomes more complicated with divorce and remarriage, as step parents, step siblings, and half siblings are thrown into the mix.
Each of the major sociological perspectives views family in a different way. From the functionalist point of view, the institution of the family helps meet the needs of its members and contributes to the stability of the society at large. Functionalists attempt to explain the nature of social order, the relationship between the various parts (structures) in society, and their contribution to the stability of the society by examining the functionality of each to determine how it contributes to the stability of society as a whole. Functionalists also stress the importance of social institutions that are based on common values of the members of the society. Within this broad perspective, functionalists view the family as important because it meets a number of important needs of the society, including producing children to replace members that have died, socializing those children so that they act within the norms and expectations of the society, regulating sexual activity, providing physical care for family members, assigning identity to individuals, and providing psychological support and emotional security to its members. According to functionalists, marriage — which they see as the sine qua non of the family — is a mutually beneficial exchange between members of two genders. From the functionalist perspective, within the social institution of marriage, women receive protection, economic support, and status from their husbands and men receive emotional and sexual support, household maintenance, and the production of children from their wives. In this traditional view of marriage and family, functionalists also view family as the primary place in which children are cared for and taught the values of the society.
Functions of the Family
According to functionalists, there are six major functions of the family.
- The family is a social institution in which it is socially acceptable to reproduce. This function of the family helps to repopulate the society and replace members who have died.
- The family is the societal unit in which the norms of sexual behavior are most clearly defined. Although the norms of sexual behavior may change over time or across cultures, within any given temporal and cultural situation, it is the family that best defines these norms.
- Functionalists posit that family is important because it offers protection to its members. Certainly, young humans need social and economic support as well as constant care in order to survive and become contributing members of society. The family is the venue in which much of this takes place. Although other social institutions (e.g., school, church) may contribute to the rearing of the children of a society, it is within the family that the primary responsibility remains.
- Families act as a socializing agent that monitors the behavior of its members (particularly its children), and teaches them to differentiate between what the society regards as acceptable versus unacceptable behavior and act in a manner that is appropriate for the needs of the society.
- The family unit offers affection and companionship to its members, thereby helping them to feel secure and satisfied. Other social institutions provide these rewards as well, of course. However, according to functionalists, although other institutions may provide some rewards on occasion, family members expect to receive these within the family (e.g., one tends to expect one's family to help out in a crisis or to comfort one in times of need).
- Families provide social status to their members. One's initial position within a society is a result of the social standing and status of one's family. In addition, the resources of the family help one attain a higher social status through allowing one to take advantages of higher education or other opportunities that allow one to attain the position in society that one desires.
In addition to these six major functions, families fulfill numerous other functions. However, these are more likely to evolve over time than are the major functions discussed above. For example, before the institution of centralized school systems, much of the education of a society's young took place in the home. Today, however, in most societies children are schooled in public or private institutions that, at least in theory, enable them to receive a better or more standardized education that will better socialize them and help them acquire the skills and knowledge that are deemed important by the society. Similarly, at one time, much of the religious education of children and even the continuing religious activities of individuals took place within the family (e.g., family devotions including Bible reading and prayer). However, increasingly, responsibility for these activities has shifted to religious institutions and away from the family. Even recreational activities that were once the primary purview of the family are now frequently offered by other groups such as sports leagues, health clubs, and other groups.
According to the functionalist perspective, societal change has a negative impact on the family by weakening the consensus on which it is based. As a result, during times of societal transition, families become disorganized and do not well meet their traditional purposes. In contemporary Western postmodern society, for example, many functionalists view the social institution of the family as breaking down under the strains being experienced by society as a result of rapid social change. According to functionalists, these changes often result in a shift in the functions typically carried out by the family to other social institutions. For example, just as social change in earlier generations caused a shift in...
Functionalists focus on the positive functions of the nuclear family, such as secondary socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities.
(If you like the above mind map, you might like to purchase a full set on the perspectives)
This brief post is designed to help you revise the Functionalist Perspective on the Family, relevant to the AS Sociology Families and Households Module.
The Functionalist View of Society
Functionalists regard society as a system made up of different parts which depend on each other. Different institutions each perform specific functions within a society to keep that society going, in the same way as the different organs of a human body perform different functions in order to maintain the whole.
In functionalist thought, the family is a particularly important institution as this it the ‘basic building block’ of society which performs the crucial functions of socialising the young and meeting the emotional needs of its members. Stable families underpin social order and economic stability.
George Peter Murdock – The four essential functions of the nuclear family
Looked at 200 different societies and argued that family was universal (in all of them).
Is the nuclear family universal?
Murdock suggested there were ‘four essential functions’ of the family:
1. Stable satisfaction of the sex drive – within monogomous relationships
2. The biological reproduction of the next generation – without which society cannot continue.
3. Socialisation of the young – teaching basic norms and valuues
4. Meeting its members economic needs – producing food and shelter for example.
Criticisms of Murdock
1. Feminist Sociologists argue that arguing that the family is essential is ideological because traditional family structures typically disadvantage women.
2. It is feasible that other instiututions could perform the functions above.
2. Anthropological research has shown that there are some cultures which don’t appear to have ‘families’ – the Nayar for example.
Talcott Parsons – Functional Fit Theory
Parson’s has a historical perspective on the evolution of the nuclear family. His functional fit theory is that as society changes, the type of family that ‘fits’ that society, and the functions it performs change. Over the last 200 years, society has moved from pre-industrial to industrial – and the main family type has changed from the extended family to the nuclear family. The nuclear family fits the more complex industrial society better, but it performs a reduced number of functions.
The extended family consisted of parents, children, grandparents and aunts and uncles living under one roof, or in a collection of houses very close to eachother. Such a large family unit ‘fitted’ pre-industrial society as the family was entirely responsible for the education of children, producing food and caring for the sick – basically it did everything for all its members.
In contrast to pre-industrial society, in industrial society (from the 1800s in the UK) the isolated “nuclear family” consisting of only parents and children becomees the norm. This type of family ‘fits’ industrial societies because it required a mobile workforce. The extended family was too difficult to move when families needed to move to find work to meet the requirements of a rapidly changing and growing economy. Furthermore, there was also less need for the extended family as more and more functions, such as health and education, gradually came to be carried out by the state.
I really like this brief explanation of Parson’s Functional Fit Theory:
Criticisms of Parson’s Theory of Functional Fit
Basically – it’s too ‘neat’ – social change doesn’t happen in such an orderly manner:
Laslett found that church records show only 10% of households contained extended kin before the industrial revolution. This suggests the family was already nuclear before industrialisation.
Young and Wilmott found that Extended Kin networks were still strong in East London as late as the 1970s.
Parsons – The two essential or irreducible functions of the family
According to Parsons, although the nuclear family performs reduced functions, it is still the only institution that can perform two core functions in society – Primary Socialisation and the Stabilisation of Adult Personalities.
1. Primary Socialisation – The nuclear family is still responsible for teaching children the norms and values of society known as Primary Socialisation.
An important part of socialisation according to Functionalists is ‘gender role socialisation. If primary socialisation is done correctly then boys learn to adopt the ‘instrumental role’ (also known as the ‘breadwinner role) – they go on to go out to work and earns money. Girls learn to adopt the ‘expressive role’ – doing all the ‘caring work’, housework and bringing up the children.
Toys can form an important part of gender socialisation
2. The stabilisation of adult personalities refers to the emotional security which is achieved within a marital relationship between two adults. According to Parsons working life in Industrial society is stressful and the family is a place where the working man can return and be ‘de-stressed’ by his wife, which reduces conflict in society. This is also known as the ‘warm bath theory’
General criticisms of the Functionalist perspective on the family
It is really important to be able to criticise the perspectives. Evaluation is worth around half of the marks in the exam!
1. Downplaying Conflict
Both Murdock and Parsons paint a very rosy picture of family life, presenting it as a harmonious and integrated institution. However, they downplay conflict in the family, particularly the ‘darker side’ of family life, such as violence against women and child abuse.
2. Being out of Date
Parson’s view of the instrumental and expressive roles of men and women is very old-fashioned. It may have held some truth in the 1950s but today, with the majority of women in paid work, and the blurring of gender roles, it seems that both partners are more likely to take on both expressive and instrumental roles
3. Ignoring the exploitation of women
Functionalists tend to ignore the way women suffer from the sexual division of labour in the family. Even today, women still end up being the primary child carers in 90% of families, and suffer the burden of extra work that this responsibility carries compared to their male partners. Gender roles are socially constructed and usually involve the oppression of women. There are no biological reasons for the functionalist’s view of separation of roles into male breadwinner & female homemaker. These roles lead to the disadvantages being experienced by women.
4. Functionalism is too deterministic
This means it ignores the fact that children actively create their own personalities. An individual’s personality isn’t pre-determined at birth or something they have no control in. Functionalism incorrectly assumes an almost robotic adoption of society’s values via our parents; clearly there are many examples where this isn’t the case.
A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my AS Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle which contains the following:
- 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
- mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
- short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
- 9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.
If you’re not quite as flush, how about this… just the 50 pages of accessible, user friendly, exam-focused notes for only £0.99* – from iTunes, Barnes and Noble and Kobo.
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Sources used to derive this information include:
Haralambos and Holborn (2013) – Sociology Themes and Perspectives, Eighth Edition, Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597479
Chapman et al (2015) A Level Sociology Student Book One, Including AS Level [Fourth Edition], Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597479
Robb Webb et al (2015) AQA A Level Sociology Book 1, Napier Press. ISBN-10: 0954007913
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