What are the functions of the family today?

How have the functions of the family changed? Are the functions of the family in decline?

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Functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons developed the ‘Functional Fit Theory of the family, in which he argued that the extended family used to perform several functions in pre-industrial society, but as society industrialized and the smaller, nuclear family became the norm, the number of functions performed by the family declined.

This post examines the extent to which the functions of the family have changed and asks whether family functions have declined over the last 200 years. It can be used to evaluate the Functionalist perspective on the family.

This post has been written primarily for students studying the families and households topic for A-level sociology.

The functions of the family in pre-industrial society

  • Unit of production
  • Caring for the young, old sick and poor
  • Primary socialisation and control of children
  • Education of children
  • The stabilisation of adult personalities (I assume Parsons thought this was just as essential pre-industrialisation!)

The Functions of the family in industrial society

According to Parsons there are now just two ‘irreducible functions’ performed by the nuclear family :

  • primary socialisation – teaching children basic norms and values
  • the ‘stabilisation of adult personalities’ – providing psychological security for men and women in a stable relationship.

The changing functions of the family

Talcott Parsons was writing in 1950s, so it’s quite possible that even the two functions he identified are no longer performed by the family today (of course some people argue that the family didn’t even perform the functions he claimed they did back in the 1950s!)

To what extent have the functions of the family changed over time, and to what extent have they declined?

The family as a unit of production

Before industrialization and the growth of factory based consumption the family was also a unit of production – the family produced most of the goods it consumed itself, mainly food and clothes.

Today, the family household no longer produces its own goods for consumption. Instead, adults go out to work, earn wages and use those wages to buy food and clothes from the market.

More-over, the increase in technologically advanced products means it would be impossible today for the family-unit to produce itself many of the goods it requires to survive in modern society – so many goods require a complex division of labour with many different specialist job roles.

Caring for the young, old sick and poor

The family used to be the only institution which could care for dependents, however today we have a range of different services which have taken over these functions, most obviously the NHS.

Social welfare services can also intervene and remove children from parents if they believe abuse has been taking place.

Education of children

Before the Education Act of 1870 children were not required to go to school, so what education many of them received had to take place within the family.

There were exceptions to this, as those from wealthier families could send their children to school.

Occupational roles also tended to be ascribed – children learned their trades from their parents, with the skills for particular trades typically being passed down from father to son.

Today, the vast majority of children go to school from the age of 4-18, with the parents taking on a secondary role in their education.

Occupations are no longer passed down from parent to child either – most children rely on the education system to give them the specific vocational skills they will need for specific jobs – occupational status today is achieved, rather than ascribed.

Primary socialisation and control of children

This was the first of Parsons’ ‘irreducible functions of the family’ – that children learn the basic norms and values of society. However, today the state can play more of a role in this where certain parents are concerned.

Sure Start is a good example of the government getting more involved in parenting and Police and social services will intervene to attempt to regulate the behaviour of young offenders.

It’s also likely that parents have less control over children today, compared to the 1950s, because of the impact of the media. It is simply harder for parents to monitor and regulate hyperreality!

The stabilisation of adult personalities

Parsons argued that nuclear families provided stability and pyscholgical security for men and women.

It is difficult to argue this today, given the low rate of marriage and high rates of relationship breakdowns and divorce.

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