Last Updated on October 4, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Functionalists see the family as one of the essential building blocks for stable societies. They tend to to see the nuclear family as the ideal family for industrial societies and argue that it performs positive functions such as as socialising children and providing emotional security for parents.
There are two main Functionalist theorists of the family: George Peter Murdock and Talcott Parsons.
Murdock argued that the nuclear family was universal and that it performed four essential functions: stabilising the sex drive, reproduction, socialisation of the young and economic production. (Obviously this has been widely criticised!)
Parsons developed the Functional Fit Theory: In pre-industrial society families used to be extended, but with industrialisation families became nuclear because they fitted industrial society better.
The Functionalist Perspective on the Family: Overview
This post covers:
- The Functionalist view of society
- George Peter Murdock’s theory of the universal nuclear family
- Talcott Parsons’ Functional Fit Theory
- The possible positive functions of the family today
- Evaluations and criticisms of the Functionalist view of the family from other perspectives.
The Functionalist View of Society
Functionalists regard society as a system made up of different parts which depend on each other. Different institutions perform specific functions within a society to keep society going, in the same way as the different organs of a human body perform different functions in order to maintain the whole.
Functionalists see the family as a particularly important institution because it as 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.
Before you go any further you might like to read this more in depth post ‘Introduction to Functionalism‘ post which covers the key ideas of Functionalism.
George Peter Murdock – Four essential functions of the nuclear family
George Murdock was an American Anthropologist who looked at 200 different societies and argued that the nuclear family was a universal feature of all human societies. In other words, the nuclear family is in all societies!
Murdock suggested there were ‘four essential functions’ of the nuclear family:
1. Stable satisfaction of the sex drive – within monogamous relationships, which prevents sexual jealousy.
2. The biological reproduction of the next generation – without which society cannot continue.
3. Socialisation of the young – teaching basic norms and values
4. Meeting its members economic needs – producing food and shelter for example.
Criticisms of Murdock
- Feminist Sociologists argue that arguing that the family is essential is ideological because traditional family structures typically disadvantage women.
- It is feasible that other institutions could perform the functions above.
- 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
Parsons 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:
Two 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.
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.
The stabilisation of adult personalities
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’.
Criticisms of Functional Fit Theory
- 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.
The Positive Functions of the Family: A summary
Functionalists identify a number of positive functions of the nuclear family, below is a summary of some of these and a few more.
- The reproduction of the next generation – Functionalists see the nuclear family as the ‘fundamental unit of society’ responsible for carrying that society on by biological reproduction
- Related to the above point one of the main functions is primary socialisation – teaching children the basic norms and values of society.
- This kind of overlaps with the above, but even during secondary socialisation, the family is expected to help educated children alongside the school.
- The family provides psychological security and security, especially for men one might say (as with the ‘warm bath theory’.)
- A further positive function is elderly care, with many families still taking on this responsibility.
- Murdock argued that monogamous relationships provide for a stable satisfaction of the sex drive – most people today still see committed sexual relationships as best.
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!
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.
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
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.
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 A-Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle:
The bundle 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.
Signposting and Related Posts
The Functionalist perspective on the family is usually the very first topic taught within the the families and households module.
References and Sources for Further Reading
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