Assess the view that the modern nuclear family is the most effective type of family unit in which to socialise children and stabilise adult personalities (24)
The above view is associated mainly with the Functionalist perspective, to an extent with the Marxist perspective, while Feminists tend to disagree.
George Murdock (1949) argued that that the nuclear family performs four essential functions to meet the needs of society and its members: The stable satisfaction of the sex drive – which prevents the social disruption cased by a ‘sexual free for all’; the reproduction of the next generation and thus the continuation of society over time; thirdly, the socialisation of the young into society’s shared norms and values and finally he argued the family provides for society’s economic needs by providing food and shelter.
Murdock thus agrees with the two statements in the question and goes further, arguing that the nuclear family performs even more functions. Furthermore, he argued that the nuclear family was universal, following his study of over 250 different societies.
Some sociologists, however, criticise Murdock’s view as being too rose tinted – pointing out that conflict and disharmony can occur both within nuclear families and within societies where the nuclear family is dominant. A second criticism is that the nuclear family is not universal – Gough studied the Nayr of South India and found that women and men had several sexual partners, but this type of matrifocal family was functional for that society.
A second Functionalist, Talcott Parsons argued that the type of society affects the shape of the family – different societies require the family to perform different functions and so some types of family ‘fit in’ better with particular societies.
To illustrate this, Parsons argued that there were two basic types of society – modern industrial society and traditional pre-industrial society. He argued that the nuclear family fits the needs of industrial society and that the extended family fitted the needs of pre-industrial society. He argued that as society became industrialised, society had different needs, and that the nuclear family evolved to meet these needs. For example, one thing industrial society needed was a geographically mobile workforce – the nuclear family is appropriate here because it is more mobile than the extended family.
Parsons also argued that the family performs less functions with the move to industrialisation – as the health care and welfare functions come to be taken over by the state. However, the family becomes more specialised – and performs two ‘essential and irreducible functions’ – these are the two mentioned in the question – the primary socialisation of children is where we are first taught societies norms and values and learn to integrate with wider society and the stabilisation of adult personalities is where the family is the place of relaxation – the place to which one returns after a hard day of working to de – stress.
Parsons has, however been criticised, as with Murdock, for having a ‘rose tinted view’ – Feminists argue that women get an unfair deal in the traditional nuclear family, for example. A second criticism is that while he may have been right about the 1950s, when he was writing, the nuclear family seams less relevant in our post-modern age when many couples need dual incomes – meaning the nuclear family may be too small to effectively perform the two functions mentioned in the question.
The Marxist view of the family is that it does do what is stated in the question, but they criticise the Functionalist view, arguing that the family also performs functions for Capitalism. Firstly, they say it performs an ‘ideological function’ in that the family convinces children, through primary socialisation, that hierarchy is natural and inevitable. Secondly, they also see the family as acting as a unit of consumption – the family is seen by Capitalists as a something to make money out of – what with the pressure to ‘keep up with the Joneses and ‘pester power’
Thus, applying Marxism we learn that the Functionalist view is too optimistic – they see the Capitalist system as infiltrating family life, through advertising, for example, which creates conflict within the family, undermining its ability to harmoniously socialise children and stabilise adult personalities.
Finally, we come onto Feminist views of the family. Radical Feminists are especially critical of the view in the question. They argue, for example, that many nuclear families are characterised by domestic abuse and point to the rising divorce rates in recent years to suggest that the nuclear family is not necessarily the best type of family. Moreover, many Feminists have argued that the nuclear family and the traditional gender roles that go along with it has for too long performed an ideological function – this set up is projected as the norm in society, a norm which women have been under pressure to conform to and a norm which serves to benefit men and oppress women – because women end up becoming dependent on men in their traditional roles – so they see the nuclear family as being the primary institution through which patriarchy is reproduced, again criticising the rather rose tinted view of the Functionalist perspective on the family.
So to conclude, while the statement in the question may have appeared to be the case in the 1950s, this no longer appears to be the case in British society today.
In the 1980s New Right thinkers argued that government policy was undermining the family so policy changes were needed. Their thinking dominated policy development from 1979 to 1997.
Like Functionalists, the New Right hold the view that there is only one correct or normal family type. This is the traditional or conventional nuclear family. Again like Functionalists, The New Right sees this family as ‘natural’ and based on fundamental biological differences between men and women. In their view this family is the cornerstone of society; a place of contentment, refuge and harmony. Finally the New Right argue that the decline of the traditional family and the growth of family diversity are the cause of many social problems such as higher crime rates and declining moral standards generally
The New Right believe that it is important for children to have a stable home, with married mother and father, and that ideally the wife should be able to stay at home to look after the children.
They believe that the introduction of the welfare state led to a culture where people depend on hand-outs from the state and that these encourage single parenting, which in turn, they argue leads to deviancy and a decline in morality.
New Right thinking encouraged the conservative government to launch the Back to Basics campaign 1993 to encourage a return to traditional family values. This was criticised for being unsuccessful, and hypocritical due some Conservative MPs being found to be having affairs or being divorced.
Evidence for ‘non-nuclear families’ being a problem
The rate of family breakdown is much lower amongst married couples (6% compared to 20%)
Children from broken homes are almost five times more likely to develop emotional problems
Young people whose mother and father split up are also three times as likely to become aggressive or badly behaved
Lone-parent families are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as two-parent families.
Children from broken homes are nine times more likely to become young offenders.”
Criticisms of the New Right view of the family
They exaggerate the decline of the Nuclear family. Most adults still marry and have children. Most children are reared by their two natural parents. Most marriages continue until death. Divorce has increased, but most divorcees remarry.
Feminism – gender roles are socially determined rather than being fixed by biology. Traditional gender roles are oppressive to women.
Feminism – divorce being easier is good because without it many women end up being trapped in unhappy or abusive relationships.
Most single parents are not welfare scroungers – most want to work but find it difficult to find jobs that are flexible enough so they can balance work and child care.
Chester (see later!) argues that the New Right exaggerate the extent of cohabiting and single parent families – most children still spend most of their lives in a nuclear family arrangement
*price will fluctuate with dollar exchange rate
Related Posts (both of which criticise The New Right)
Late-Modernists such as Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck recognize that people have more choice in terms of their relationships and family arrangements, but do not believe that people are as free as postmodernists suggest. There are still underlying patterns, and shared experiences of relationships that are a consequence of our living in a ‘late-modern’ society – rather than families just being diverse and random.
For example, people are less likely to get married because of structural changes – For example gender equality means that both partners have to work and spend longer building their careers, which means the average person has less time to spend making a relationship work, which means a decline in marriage, and an increase in divorce.
Ulrich Beck also argues that fewer people getting married is because of an increase in ‘risk consciousness’ – people see that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and so they are less willing to take the risk and get married.
This is not simply a matter of freedom of choice – people are ‘reflexive’ – they look at society, see the risk of marriage, and then choose not to get married – their personal decisions are informed by what they see going in society.
Beck also talks of indivdualisation – a new social norm is that our individual desires are more important than social commitments, and this makes marriage less likely.
Giddens builds on this and says that the typical relationship today is the Pure Relationship – one which lasts only as long as both partners are happy with it, not because of tradition or a sense of commitment. This makes cohabitation and serial monogamy rather than the long term commitment of a marriage more likely.
The work of Giddens and Beck is briefly summarised below.
Anthony Giddens: Choice and Equality
Giddens argues that in recent decades the family and marriage have been transformed by greater choice and a more equal relationship between men and women. Giddens argues that relationships are now characterised by three general characteristics:
1. The basis of marriage and family has changed into one in which the couple are free to define the relationship themselves rather than simply acting out roles that have been defined in advance by law or tradition. For example, couples today can chose to cohabit rather than marry
2. The typical relationship is the ‘pure relationship’….It exists solely to meet the partners’ needs and is likely to continue only so long as it succeeds. Couples stay together because of love, happiness of sexual attraction rather than tradition a sense of duty or for the sake of the children.
3. Relationships become part of the process of self-discovery or self-identity trying different relationships become part of establishing who we are part of our journey of self discovery.
However Giddens notes that with more choice, personal relationships inevitably become less stable and can be ended more or less at will by any partner! Joy! For example most teenagers (57%) think that their relationships will only last 1 year and only 2% of relationships at 18 will progress to marriage’
Ulrich Beck: The ‘Risk Society’ and The Negotiated Family
Ulrich Beck puts forward a similar view to that of Anthony Giddens. Beck argues that we now live in a ‘risk society’ where tradition has less influence and people have more choice. As a result we are more aware of risk (we have developed a ‘risk consciousness’) because having choice means we spend more time calculating the risks and rewards of different courses of action available.
Today’s risk society contrasts with the modern society of the past with its stable nuclear family and traditional gender roles. Beck argues that even though the traditional patriarchal family was unequal and oppressive, it did provide a stable and predictable basis for the family by defining each member’s role and responsibly. However the patriarchal family has been undermined by two trends.
Greater Gender Equality – which has challenged male domination in all spheres of life. Women now expect equality both at work and in marriage.
Greater individualism – where people’s actions are influenced more by calculations of their own self-interest that by a sense of obligation to others.
These trends have led to the rise of the negotiated family. Negotiated families do not conform to the traditional family norm, but vary according to the wishes and expectations of their members, who decided what is best for them by discussion. They enter the relationship on an equal basis.
However, the negotiated family may be more equal, but it is less stable, because it is characterised by greater equality.
A summary of liberal, marxist and radical feminist views on the traditional nuclear family
Almost all feminists agree that gender is socially constructed. This means that gender roles are learnt rather than determined by biology, and the most significant institution where we are socialised into our appropriate roles and norms of behaviour is the family. The proof for this theory is found in the sometimes radically different behaviour we see between women from different societies i.e. different societies construct being “women” in different ways (This is obviously true for men as well).
This post summarises Feminist perspectives on the family, focusing on liberal, radical and Marxist Feminism, and is primarily designed to help students revise for the AQA A level sociology paper 2, families and households option.
Feminism and the Family
Feminists have been central in criticising gender roles associated with the traditional nuclear family, especially since the 1950s. They have argued the nuclear family has traditionally performed two key functions which oppressed women:
a) socialising girls to accept subservient roles within the family, whilst socialising boys to believe they were superior – this happens through children witnessing then recreating the parental relationship
b) socialising women into accepting the “housewife” role as the only possible/acceptable role for a women. Indeed it was the only way to be feminine/to be a woman. Essentially, feminists viewed the function of the family as a breeding ground where patriarchal values were learned by an individual, which in turn created a patriarchal society.
Feminism today tends to be split into three distinct branches: Liberal Feminists, Marxist Feminists and Radical Feminists. They differ significantly over the extent to which they believe that the family is still patriarchal and in what the underlying causes of the existence of patriarchy might be. Remember – all the theories below are discussing the “nuclear” family.
Causes of inequality in relationships – A combination of two things – (1) Mainstream working culture which requires long and inflexible working hours which are still based on the idea of the main breadwinner, (2) Men refusing to pull their weight in relationships.
Solutions to Inequality – Greater gender equality in the public sphere -achieving equal access to education, equal pay, ending gender differences in subject and career choice won primarily through legal changes.
A key thinker who can be characterised as a liberal feminist is Jennifer Somerville (2000) who provides a less radical critique of the family than Marxist or Radical Feminists and suggests proposals to improve family life for women that involve modest policy reforms rather than revolutionary change.
Somerville argues that many young women do not feel entirely sympathetic towards feminism yet still feel some sense of grievance.
To Somerville, many feminists have failed to acknowledge progress for women such as the greater freedom to go into paid work, and the greater degree of choice over whether they marry or cohabit, when and whether to have children, and whether to take part in a heterosexual or same-sex relationship or to simply live on their own.
The increased choice for women and the rise of the dual-earner household (both partners in work) has helped create greater equality within relationships. Somerville argues that ‘some modern men are voluntarily committed to sharing in those routine necessities of family survival, or they can be persuaded, cajoled, guilt-tripped or bullied’. Despite this, however, ‘women are angry, resentful and above all disappointed in men.’ Many men do not take on their full share of responsibilities and often these men can be ‘shown the door’.
Somerville raises the possibility that women might do without male partners, especially as so many prove inadequate, and instead get their sense of fulfilment from their children. Unlike Germain Greer, however, Somerville does not believe that living in a household without an adult male is the answer – the high figures for remarriage suggest that heterosexual attraction and the need for intimacy and companionship mean that heterosexual families will not disappear.
However, it remains the case that the inability of men to ‘pull their weight’ in relationships means that high rates of relationship breakdowns will continue to be the norm which will lead to more complex familial relationships as women end one relationship and attempt to rebuild the next with a new (typically male) partner.
What Feminists thus need to do is to focus on policies which will encourage greater equality within relationships and to help women cope with the practicalities of daily life. One set of policies which Somerville thinks particularly important are those aimed at helping working parents. The working hours and culture associated with many jobs are incompatible with family life. Many jobs are based on the idea of a male breadwinner who relies on a non-working wife to take care of the children.
Somerville argues that in order to achieve true equality within relationships we need increased flexibility in paid employment.
Evaluation of the Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family
Sommerville recognises that significant progress has been made in both public and private life for women
It is more appealing to a wider range of women than radical ideas
It is more practical – the system is more likely to accept small policy changes, while it would resist revolutionary change
Marxist feminists argue the main cause of women’s oppression in the family is not men, but capitalism. They argue that women’s oppression performs several functions for Capitalism
Women reproduce the labour force – through their unpaid domestic labour, by socialising the next generation of workers and servicing the current workers (their husbands!)
Women absorb anger – Think back to Parson’s warm bath theory. The Marxist-Feminist interpretation of this is that women are just absorbing the anger of the proletariat, who are exploited and who should be directing that anger towards the Bourgeois
Women are a ‘reserve army of cheap labour’ – if women’s primary role is domestic, and they are restricted from working, this also means they are in reserve, to be taken on temporarily as necessary by the Bourgeois, making production more flexible.
Key thinker – Fran Ansley (1972) argues women absorb the anger that would otherwise be directed at capitalism. Ansley argues women’s male partners are inevitably frustrated by the exploitation they experience at work and women are the victims of this, including domestic violence.
Key thinker 2 – Penny Red’s Socialist Feminist Blog
“The freedom that’s offered to everyone under Capitalism is the freedom for a few to self-actualize in an extremely narrow, homogenous way by shopping and consuming, whilst the rest of us work long hours for low wages or no wages. Freedom from economic exploitation isn’t the sexy kind of female empowerment we’ve all become used to, but without it we won’t be moving forward.
The way in which women’s labour is used and abused—the concentration of women in low-paid or unpaid caring and domestic roles, for example, is not only one of the things that sustains patriarchy, it also sustains capitalism. Without the work that women do for free, the markets would be on their knees in a day. And yet, it just goes to show that there is, in fact, plenty of work out there, it’s just that most of it is being done by women, for free.”
Marxist Feminism – Solutions to Gender Inequalities within the family
For Marxist Feminists, the solutions to gender inequality are economic – We need to tackle Capitalism to tackle Patriarchy. Softer solutions include paying women for childcare and housework – thus putting an economic value on what is still largely women’s work, stronger solutions include the abolition of Capitalism and the ushering in of Communism.
Evaluations of Marxist Feminism
One limitation is that this sounds very dated for the 2020s: women today are just as likely to be in paid work as men, and so they no longer act as a ‘reserve army of labour’ for example.
A further limitation is that women’s oppression was clearly in evidence before capitalism – if anything, women are probably more oppressed in pre-capitalist, tribal societies compared to within capitalist societies.
There appears to be a correlation between capitalist development and women’s liberation – suggesting that capitalism has the opposite effect from that suggested by Marxist Feminists.
Radical feminists argue that all relationships between men and women are based on patriarchy – essentially men are the cause of women’s exploitation and oppression. For radical feminists, the entire patriarchal system needs to be overturned, in particular the family, which they view as root of women’s oppression.
Against Liberal Feminism, they argue that paid work has not been ‘liberating’. Instead women have acquired the ‘dual burden’ of paid work and unpaid housework and the family remains patriarchal – men benefit from women’s paid earnings and their domestic labour. Some Radical Feminists go further arguing that women suffer from the ‘triple shift’ where they have to do paid work, domestic work and ‘emotion work’ – being expected to take on the emotional burden of caring for children.
Radical Feminists also argue that, for many women, there is a ‘dark side of family life’ – According to the British Crime Survey domestic violence accounts for a sixth of all violent crime and nearly 1 in 4 women will experience DV at some point in their lifetime and women are much more likely to experience this than men
Key thinker –Kate Millet (see below) was one of the leading American Second Wave Feminists in the 1960s and 70s
Solutions to gender inequality
In short, Radical Feminists advocate for the abolition of the traditional, patriarchal (as they see it) nuclear family and the establishment of alternative family structures and sexual relations. The various alternatives suggested by Radical Feminists include separatism – women only communes, and Matrifocal households. Some also practise political Lesbianism and political celibacy as they view heterosexual relationships as “sleeping with the enemy.”
Evaluations of Radical Feminism
In some ways this perspective is less relevant today than in the 1960s – women are much less likely to suffer from the dual burden and triple shift, for example.
In some ways, however, it still seems very relevant. For example, the ME TOO campaign and the Harvey Weinstein scandal both show that harassment and sexual abuse of women remain common.
Supplement: Kate Millett: On the sociology of Patriarchy
Patriarchy’s chief institution is the family. It is both a mirror of and a connection with the larger society; a patriarchal unit within a patriarchal whole. Mediating between the individual and the social structure, the family effects control and conformity where political and other authorities are insufficient. As the fundamental instrument and the foundation unit of patriarchal society the family and its roles are prototypical. Serving as an agent of the larger society, the family not only encourages its own members to adjust and conform, but acts as a unit in the government of the patriarchal state which rules its citizens through its family heads.
Traditionally, patriarchy granted the father nearly total ownership over wife or wives and children, including the powers of physical abuse and often even those of murder and sale. Classically, as head of the family the father is both begetter and owner in a system in which kinship is property. Yet in strict patriarchy, kinship is acknowledged only through association with the male line.
In contemporary patriarchies the male’s priority has recently been modified through the granting of divorce protection, citizenship, and property to women. Their chattel status continues in their loss of name, their obligation to adopt the husband’s domicile, and the general legal assumption that marriage involves an exchange of the female’s domestic service and (sexual) consortium in return for financial support.
The chief contribution of the family in patriarchy is the socialisation of the young (largely through the example and admonition of their parents) into patriarchal ideology’s prescribed attitudes toward the categories of role, temperament, and status. Although slight differences of definition depend here upon the parents’ grasp of cultural values, the general effect of uniformity is achieved, to be further reinforced through peers, schools, media, and other learning sources, formal and informal. While we may niggle over the balance of authority between the personalities of various households, one must remember that the entire culture supports masculine authority in all areas of life and – outside of the home – permits the female none at all.
Although there is no biological reason why the two central functions of the family (socialisation and reproduction) need be inseparable from or even take place within it, revolutionary or utopian efforts to remove these functions from the family have been so frustrated, so beset by difficulties, that most experiments so far have involved a gradual return to tradition. This is strong evidence of how basic a form patriarchy is within all societies, and of how pervasive its effects upon family members.
A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle
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
(1) This division goes back to Alison Jaggar’s (1983) Feminist Politics and Human Nature where she defined four theories related to feminism: liberal feminism, Marxism, radical feminism, and socialist feminism
Class notes on Engel’s theory of the relationship between capitalism, private property and the family; and contemporary marxist views on the family.
Marxists argue that the nuclear family performs ideological functions for Capitalism – the family acts as a unit of consumption and teaches passive acceptance of hierarchy. It is also the institution through which the wealthy pass down their private property to their children, thus reproducing class inequality. This post is primarily designed to help students revise for the A level sociology 7192 exam, paper 2, families and households option.
Marxism is a ‘structural conflict’ perspective. They see society as structured along class lines with institutions generally working in the interests of the small elite class who have economic power (the ‘Bourgeoisie’) and the much larger working class (the ‘Proletariat’). The Bourgeoise gain their wealth from exploiting the proletariat. There is thus a conflict of interests between the Bourgeoise and the Proletariat.
However, this conflict of interests rarely boils over into revolution because institutions such as the family perform the function of ‘ideological control’, or convincing the masses that the present unequal system is inevitable, natural and good.
Something else Marxists suggest about the family (like the Functional Fit theory) is that the family type generally changes with society – more specifically, the nuclear family emerges not because of the needs of industrialisation, but because of the needs of the capitalist system.
Explaining the emergence of the nuclear family – Engels
According to Engels, the monogamous nuclear family only emerged with Capitalism. Before Capitalism, traditional, tribal societies were classless and they practised a form of ‘primitive communism’ in which there was no private property. In such societies, property was collectively owned, and the family structure reflected this – there were no families as such, but tribal groups existed in a kind of ‘promiscuous horde’ in which there were no restrictions on sexual relationships.
However, with the emergence of Capitalism in the 18th Century, society and the family changed. Capitalism is based on a system of private ownership – The bourgeois use their own personal wealth to personally invest in businesses in order to make a profit, they don’t invest for the benefit of everyone else.
Eventually the Bourgeois started to look for ways to pass on their wealth to the next generation, rather than having it shared out amongst the masses, and this is where the monogamous nuclear family comes from. It is the best way of guaranteeing that you are passing on your property to your son, because in a monogamous relationship you have a clear idea of who your own children are.
Ultimately what this arrangement does is to reproduce inequality – The children of the rich grow up into wealth, while the children of the poor remain poor. Thus the nuclear family benefits the Bourgeois more than the proletariat.
Criticisms of Engels
Gender inequality clearly preceded Capitalism….. The vast majority of tribes in Africa and Asia are patriarchal, with women being barred from owning property, having no political power, and having to do most of the child care and hard physical labour.
Wealthy Capitalist economies such as the UK and USA have seen the fastest improvements in gender equality over the last 100 years. Capitalism, increasing wealth and gender equality within a nation seem to be correlated.
Contemporary Marxism – The family as an Ideological Apparatus
The modern nuclear family functions to promote values that ensure the reproduction and maintenance of capitalism. The family is described as an ideological apparatus – this means it socialises people to think in a way that justifies inequality and encourages people to accept the capitalist system as fair, natural and unchangeable.
One way in which this happens is that there is a hierarchy in most families which teaches children to accept there will always be someone in “authority” who they must obey, which then mirrors the hierarchy of boss-worker in paid employment in later life.
Contemporary Marxism – The Family as a Unit of Consumption
Capitalists/business owners want to keep workers’ wages down so they can make a profit, but to do so they must also be able to sell the workers goods i.e. they must create demand for their products. The family builds demand for goods in a number of ways
1) Families must keep up with the material goods/services acquired by their neighbours and peers e.g. family holidays, cars – this is known “Keeping up with the Joneses”. There are significant amounts of advertising and TV programmes influencing parents in this way.
2) The media and companies target children in their advertising who then persuade their parents through pester power to buy more expensive items. This is particularly bad in the UK where there few legal restrictions on adverts aimed at children; in Sweden advertising aimed at children under 12 is illegal.
Overall Criticisms of Marxism
It’s too deterministic – it assumes people passively accept socialisation and family life, and that the future is pre-determined. There are plenty of families who reject the consumerist lifestyle and many families bring their children up to be independent thinkers.
The Marxist perspective ignores family diversity in capitalist society, the nuclear family is no longer the main type of family. In fact, family breakdown may be better for Capitalism – as divorce is expensive and more money has to be spent on maintaining family relationships and later on forming new families.
Feminists argue that the Marxist focus on social class inequalities downplays the role of patriarchy, which is the real source of female oppression. Feminists would point out that sex inequalities exist within all families, irrespective of social class background.
Marxism ignores the benefits of nuclear family e.g. both parents support the children. The New Right point out that this is the most functional type of environment in which to raise children, and the nuclear family is found in most societies around the world, suggesting it is something people choose.
A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle
Functionlists focus on the positive functions performed by the nuclear family such as primary socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities. Also includes criticisms from other perspectives!
Functionalists focus on the positive functions of the nuclear family, such as secondary socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities.
This brief post is designed to help you revise the Functionalist Perspective on the Family, relevant to the AS Sociology Families and Households Module. It summarises the work of George Murdoch and Talcott Parsons and then offers some general criticisms .
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.
Functionalists see the family as a particularly important institution as they see 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 – The 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:
Criticisms of Parson’s Theory of Functional Fit
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.
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’
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.
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
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