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

The pre-release information for the 2022 A-level sociology exam from the AQA selected the relationship of the family to the social structure and social change as the topic area that WILL come up for the 20 mark essay.

NB we are talking here about the Paper 2 exam: topics in sociology the families and households option, and this post is just a reminder of the core content that comes within this sub-topic!

What is the social structure?

The idea of a social structure is most commonly associated with the two classic sociological perspectives Funtionalism and Marxism:

  • Functionalists argue that society is structured through institutions which all perform specific functions, all working together to maintain the whole system of society – like organs in a body (the ‘organic analogy’) – the family is seen as playing a crucial role in (obviously?) the reproduction of the next generation.
  • Marxists see the social structure as being organised along social class lines – with the bourgeoisie exercising control over the major institutions of society
  • Feminism has a more complex view of the social structure whether you’re talking about Liberal, Marxist or Radical.
  • Postmodernists and Late Modernists suggest the social structure which Marxists and Functionalists refer too is much more fluid than it used to be and that it constrains the individual much less today than in the late 19th and mid 20th centuries when Marxists and Functionalists did most of their writing.

Recent social changes you might consider….

The social changes associated with the shift from modernity to postmodernity are what you could address, such as:

  • Globalisation
  • The breakdown/ increasing fluidity of social structure
  • More individual freedom and choice

The relationship of the family to the social structure

The ‘classic’ approach to this topic is to address it through the main sociological perspectives, and if you know what the different perspectives think about the family and social structure, you SHOULD automatically be addressing social change at the same time, as the two are fundamentally related.

The rest of this post offers a brief summary of what the main sociological perspectives have to say on this topic.

for further details and especially evaluations be sure to check out the linked posts below!

The Functionalist view on the family and social structure

Talcot Parsons developed the Functional Fit Theory to explain how the main type of family changed from the extended family to the nuclear family with the shift from pre-industrial to industrial society.

He argued that the nuclear family better fitted the needs of an industrial society because it was smaller and more mobile, and the changes with industrialisation meant that families needed to be able to move around more easily.

He also argued that the family in industrial society had to perform fewer functions than in industrial society because other institutions developed to perform functions more efficiently than the old extended family could – schools for education, for example.

The family in industrial society performs only two functions – the stabilisation of adult personalties (emotional security) and reproduction.

Find out more here: The Functionalist view of the family.

The Marxist view of the family and social structure

This stands in direct contrast to the Functionalist view – the nuclear family emerges with industrialisation, according to Engles, but only to legitimise the passing on of property down to the next generation – with Capitalism, there are now wealthy people and the family unit makes sure their new wealth stays in the family.

Before Capitalism Engles argued that families were a kind of ‘promiscuous hoard’ – when there was no property people cared for children collectively – it’s only when SOME families have property under capitalism that the nuclear family emerges.

Later Marxists suggest the nuclear family continues to perform functions for Capitalism by becoming a unit of consumption, for example.

Find out more: The Marxist Perspective on the Family.

The Radical Feminist view on the Nuclear Family

Radical Feminists see the nuclear family as the main institution which keeps Patriarchy going.

The traditional nuclear family and the ideology of the housewife role for women keeps women in the domestic sphere and out of the work place, preventing them from developing financial independence and limiting them to a caring role and a life of dull-drudgery.

Moreover, women are effectively exploited with the nuclear family, and far from the family being a safe haven, domestic abuse within family life is a common, yet hidden feature of many relationships.

A core belief of radical feminism is that the nuclear family needs to be broken down and women are better off seeking alternative relationships.

Find out more: The Radical Feminist View of the Family.

Post and Late Modernism

Writing since the 1980s, Postmodernists argue that there is no such thing as a normal family anymore – rather, family diversity is now the norm – with there being more variety of families than ever before – as shown by the increase in single person households and single parent households for example.

For postmodernists, every aspect of family life is a choice – and hence we see people getting married and starting families later and divorce rates persistently high.

Late Modernists suggest it is not as simple as family life being all about choice – rather social life today makes holding down a relationship and having a stable family life more difficult – people still want these things, but busy working lives and constant distractions make family life much more difficult.

Find out More

This has been just a quick reminder post, be sure to check out the linked blog posts for further details.

Be sure to check out the New Right and Personal Life Perspective too!

Also, remember that the specific question you get asked could be either broad or very narrow, AND the 10 mark questions will probably be from other areas of the module!

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