What are ‘Social Facts’ ?

Social Facts are one of Emile Durkheim’s most significant contributions to sociology. Social facts are things such as institutions, norms and values which exist external to the individual and constrain the individual.

Durkheim

The University of Colorado lists as examples of social facts: institutions, statuses, roles, laws, beliefs, population distribution, urbanization, etc. Social facts include social institutions, social activities and [the strata of society – for example the class structure, subcultures etc.]

The video below provides a useful introduction to the concept of social facts….

The video suggests that the concept ‘social fact’ is a broad term designed to encompass the social environment which constrains individual behaviour.

It uses the analogy of a how the physical structure of a room limits our actions (we can only go in and through the door or windows for example; in the same way the social facts which make up our social environment constrains us – norms, values, beliefs, ideologies and so on effectively limit our choices.

Sociology is about identifying the relationship between the social conditions and people’s behaviour.

 This second video is a bit more complex…

According to Durkheim, social facts emerge out of collectives of individuals, they cannot be reduced to the level of individuals – and this social reality is real, and it exists above the level of the individual, sociology is the study of this ‘level above the individual’.

As far as Durkheim was concerned this was no different to the concept that human life is greater than the sum of the individual cells which make it up – society has a reality above that of the individuals who constitute it.

A key idea of Durkheim – that we should never reduce the study of society to the level of the individual, we should remain at the level of social facts and aim to explain social action in relation to social facts.

(Not in the video) – this is precisely what Durkheim did in his study of suicide by trying to explain variations in the suicide rate (which is above the level of the individual) through other social facts, such as the divorce rate, the pace of economic growth, the type of religion (all of which he further reduced to two basic variables – social integration and social regulation.

In this way sociology should aim to be scientific, it should not study individuals, but scientific trends at the level above the individual. This is basically the Positivist approach to studying society, as laid down in Durkhiem’s 1895 work ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’.

NB Durkheim’s study of suicide is just about the best illustration of the application of social facts that there is – In which he researched official statistics on suicide in several European countries and found that the suicide rate was influenced by social facts such as the divorce rate, the religion of a country, and the pace of economic and social changed – Durkheim further theorized that the suicide rate increased when there was either too much or too little integration and regulation in society. 

The major criticism of Durkheim’s concept of social facts is that the statistics he claims to be ‘social facts’ aren’t – suicide stats are open to manipulation by the people who record them (coroners) – and there is huge potential for several suicides (intentional deaths) to be mis-recorded as open verdicts or accidental deaths and thus we can never be 100% certain of the validity of this data, thus theorising on the basis of cross national comparisons based on said data is risky.

It is possible to apply this ‘social construction critique’ to a range of statistics – such as crime stats, unemployment stats, immigration stats, happiness stats, and a whole load more, which means that while there may be a really existing social world external to the individual, it’s not necessarily possible to know or measure that world with any degree of certainty or to understand how all of the various social facts out there interact with each other. NB This may well explain why no one seems to be able to make predictions about economic crashes, Arab Springs, or election results these days! 

Other critics, such as phenomenologists (kind of like precursors to Postmodernists), argue that the whole concept of an external reality is itself flawed, and that instead of one external reality which constrains individuals there are a multitude of more fluid and diverse social realities which arise and fade with social interaction. From this perspective, we may think there is a system of social norms and values out there in the world, but this is only ‘real’ for us if we think it to be real; this is nothing more than a thought, and thus in ‘reality’ we are really free as individuals. (Monstrously free, if you like, to coin a phrase.)

Do Social Facts Exist?

Durkheim’s view of society and the Positivist method have been conceived over 100 years ago, and it has been severely criticised by Interpretivists and Postmodernists, but this hasn’t stopped many researchers from adopting a quantitative, scientific approach to analysing social trends and social problems at the level of society rather than at the level of the individual, and there does seem to be something in the view that society constrains us in subtle and often unnoticed ways, many of which you would’ve come across over the two year A level sociology course.  

Firstly, the suicide rate still varies according to various social factors (‘social facts’?)

For example, after noting that the male suicide rate is 3 times higher than the female suicide rate, and highest for men in their late 40s, This 2016 suicide report by the Samaritans (UK focus) notes that ‘Research suggests that social and economic factors influence the risk of suicide in women as well as men’

suicide

Hence as Durkheim said in the 19th century, the decision to kill yourself isn’t just a personal decision, it’s influenced by whether your’re male or female and your age. (As a 43 year old male, I don’t find this graph particularly encouraging, then again at least I’m into ‘the hump’ rather than staring at it from my 30s and with only 8 years of shit to go.) 

Secondly, the birth rate/ total fertility rate seem to be effected by a number of ‘social facts’

Think back to the module on the family – while the decision to have babies seems personal and private, the number of children women have, and the age at which they have them seems to be influenced heavily by society. The decline in the birth rate is now  a global trend – and while there are different ’causes’ which have led to its reduction, some of the more common ones appear to be women’s empowerment and education , economic growth and state-promoted family planning.

Web

This isn’t just me saying this, it’s backed up by a whole load of number crunching of global data on birth rates which are summarised in this excellent Guardian article.

According to the The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) there are a number of factors that can play a role in a country’s fertility rates, including its investment in education, the availability of family planning services, the status of women’s rights and the prevalence of early and forced marriage.

“Population dynamics are not destiny,” the UNFPA’s population matters report says. “Change is possible through a set of policies which respect human rights and freedoms and contribute to a reduction in fertility, notably access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, education beyond the primary level, and the empowerment of women.”

Thirdly, educational achievement still varies enormously by (the social fact of) social class background

It’s depressing to have to remind you about it, but from the Education module you learnt that social class background has a profound impact on educational achievement. The graph below shows achievement by FSM pupils compared to all other pupils.  ‘FSM’ stands for ‘Free School Meals’ – to qualify for FSM status a child needs to be in approximately the bottom sixth of households by income -NB FSM is only a proxy for social class, one indicator of it, the only one we have to hand which is convenient. (The government doesn’t collect information on social class and educational achievement for ideological reasons). 

fsm-educational-attainmentKeep in mind that this is the bottom sixth by income compared to all other pupils. If you separated out the top sixth, you’d probably see a 90% 5 A-C achievement rate (or something like that).

Again if you think back to the lessons on material and cultural deprivation, coming from a poor background seems to weigh heavily on ‘poor kids’ while coming from a middle class background confers material and cultural advantage on the children of wealthier parents. Sad to say but educational results in England and Wales are most definitely NOT a reflection of just intelligence.

For the full report click here

The Spirit Level – Equality as a ‘Social Fact’?

One of the best examples of a Positivist approach to social research carried out in recent years is ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.– a study of the effects of wealth and income inequality on a whole range of social problems 

mental-illness

Chapter by chapter, graph by graph, the authors demonstrate that the more unequal a rich country is,the worse its performance is likely to be in a whole range of variables including:

  • life expectancy
  • infant mortality
  • obesity
  • child wellbeing
  • amount of mental illness
  • use of illegal drugs
  • teenage pregnancy rates
  • homicide and imprisonment rates
  • levels of mutual trust between citizens
  • maths and literacy attainment
  • social mobility (children rising in social scale compared with their parents)
  • spending on foreign aid

The authors consider and eliminate other possibilities, and conclude:

 ‘It is very difficult to see how the enormous variations which exist from one society to another in the level of problems associated with low social status can be explained without accepting that inequality is the common denominator, and a hugely damaging force.”

Inequalities erode “social capital”, that is, the cohesion of a society, the degree to which individual citizens are involved in their society, the strength of the social networks within it, and the degree of trust and empathy between citizens.

The mechanisms by which inequality impacts on societies, it is suggested, is that individuals internalise inequality, that their psyches are profoundly affected by it, and that that in turn affects physical as well as mental health, and leads to attitudes and behaviours which appear as a variety of social and health problems.’ 

So if you’ve got an anxiety disorder, blame Thatcher, she’s the one whose government kick started the march towards inequality.

Social Facts… In summary 

According to Durkheim (a French dude from the 19th century), society exists at a level above the individual and it kind of has a life of its own. It consists of social facts such as institutions and the class structure which constrain individuals depending on their relation to said social facts.

Durkheim believed that we should limit ourselves to studying ‘social facts’ at the level of society – aim to understand how and why social trends vary, and do this in a scientific way.

Understanding more about how these social forces drive social change, and deriving the laws which govern human interaction is the point of sociology according to Durkheim, and doing this requires us to study social facts at the level of society, there is no need to focus on individuals.

Some of the findings of this type of research based on social facts include……. 

  • Being male, 40-50, poor, and divorced means you are more miserable and more likely to kill yourself (Oh yeah, I’m not poor, or divorced, so yay I’m OK!)
  • Economic growth, female empowerment, and family planning policies have led to women having fewer babies
  • Being from a poor household means you’re much more likely to get crap CGSEs
  • The more unequal a country in terms of wealth and income the worse of everyone is in pretty much every way imaginable, especially those at the bottom.

So that’s all pretty useful, right? Basically we need to make the world more equal, empower more women, and help poor children and middle aged men more and everything’ll be a whole lot better….

Related Posts 

Positivism in Social Research 

The Functionalist Theory of Society for A Level Sociology – Revision Notes

Functionalism as a Structural/Systems Theory – it focuses on the needs of the social system as a whole; it is a consensus theory – it sees society as based on shared values; it is also a modernist theory – it believes that research can find the truth and lead to progress. Functionalism is closely related to the New Right and Modernisation Theory.

Functionalism for A Level Socioogy
Functionalism for A Level Socioogy

Introduction/ Society as a System

  • Historical Context: the 1890s to the 1950s
  • Parsons uses the term ‘organic analogy’ to describe society.
  • Parsons sees three similarities between society and a biological organism: both are self-regulating, both have needs, both have sub-systems which perform specific functions.

Emile Durkheim’s Functionalism (1858 – 1917) – The first ever ‘Sociologist’

  • Concerned with understanding rapid social change brought about with industrialisation
  • Traditional society based on ‘mechanical solidarity’ and strong collective conscience
  • Industrial society = more complex causes change and anomie, challenge of modernity = how to achieve ‘organic solidarity’
  • Society exists as a separate entity above its members, as a system of ‘social facts’. It affects people irrespective of their individual thoughts and feelings.
  • Studied suicide to illustrate the above.

Talcott Parson’s Functionalism

  • Society is based on value consensus and social order
  • Society needs individuals to be integrated – this is achieved through socialisation and social control
  • The social system has four basic needs: instrumental (adaptation and goal attainment) and expressive (integration and latency)
  • Social change is gradual and evolutionary/ progressive – societies gradually evolve by moving from simple to more complex and larger structures.

Robert Merton’s Functionalism 

  • Merton’s Three Internal Critiques of Functionalism: Not everything is necessary; not everything is interconnected; some institutions are dysfunctional
  • Merton’s ideas of Latent and Manifest Functions: Intended and unintended (so functions may be more complex than Parson’s suggests)

Overall Evaluations of Functionalism

  • Durkheim’s study on suicide – trends still true today
  • Governments view society as a system
  • Development theorists view society as a system.
  • X – Logical Criticisms – Functionalism is teleological – it explains an institutions existence in terms of its effect, and the effect may not be necessary
  • X – Conflict Perspectives – Functionalism ignores power inequality and exploitatio
  • X – Action Perspectives – Functionalism is deterministic
  • X – Postmodernist Critiques – society is not as stable, orderly, or predictable as Functionalists suggest.

Functionalism applied to other topic areas within sociology

Functionalism Summary

The Functionalist perspective on the family

  • The four universal functions of the family
  • Functional fit theory
  • Primary socialisation
  • Stabilisation of adult personalities
  • Traditional gender role

The Functionalist perspective on education

  • Secondary socialisation
  • Social Solidarity
  • Skills for working
  • Meritocracy
  • Role Allocation

Modernisation Theory (Functionalism applied to development)

  • Aid injections and five stages of growth
  • Cultural Barriers
  • Capitalist/ Industrial model of development

Functionalist and Social Control theories of crime

  • Bonds of attachment theory
  • Positive Functions of Crime
  • Inevitability of crime

Functionalist research methods – Positivism

  • Social Facts
  • Objectivity
  • Official Statistics
  • Correlations
  • Generaliseablity
  • Science

If you like this sort of revision-thang, then why not contribute to my early retirement fund and buy these revision notes for Theory and Methods – they’re structured as in the picture below, and cost less than a pint of yer finest ale!

Functionalism notes

The notes cover the following sub-topics:

  1. Functionalism
  2. Marxism
  3. Feminism
  4. Social Action Theory
  5. Postmodernism
  6. Late Modernism
  7. Sociology and Social Policy

Related Posts 

The Functionalist Perspective on Society – Summary Grid covering the Functionalist perspective on the family, education, crime and global development (modernisation theory)

The Functionalist Perspective on Society – Class Notes

Marxist Theory for second year sociology – Knowledge Check List

 

Robert Merton’s Internal Critique of Functionalism

Merton criticises three of Parsons’ assumptions:: Indispensability, Functional Unity, and Universalism.

Criticisms of Parson’s systems theory have come from both outside and inside Functionalism.

Within Functionalism, the most significant criticisms come from Robert K. Merton (1968). He criticises three key assumptions made by Parsons.

  • Indispensability
  • Functional Unity
  • Universal Functionalism

Indispensability

Parsons assumes that everything in society – the family, religion and so on – is functionally indispensable in its existing form.

Merton argues this is an untested assumption and he points to the possibility of functional alternatives. For example, Parsons assumes that primary socialisation is best performed by the nuclear family, but one-parent families or multi-generational families may do this just as well.

Functional unity

Parsons assumes that all parts of society are tightly integrated into a single whole or ‘unity’ and that each part is functional for all the rest. Similarly, he argues that if one part changes, it will have a knock on effect for the others.

However, Merton argues that some parts of society may be relatively independent from others – maybe society wouldn’t collapse if the nuclear family disappeared altogether.

Universal functionalism

Parsons seems to assume that everything in society performs positive functions for society as a whole.

However, Merton argues that some aspects of society may be dysfunctional for certain groups, which relates to Conflict perspectives.

Manifest and Latent Functions.

Merton also contributes a useful distinction between ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ functions. He cites the example of the Hopi Indians who, in times of drought, perform a rain-dance with the aim of magically producing rain. This is its manifest, or intended function. From a scientific viewpoint, however, this goal is unlikely to be achieved.

However, the ritual may also have an unintended or latent function – such as promoting a sense of solidarity in times of hardship, when individuals may be tempted to look after themselves at the expense of others. Merton’s distinction is here useful for helping us to identify functions which members themselves might not be aware of.

Signposting and Related Posts

You might also like to read this post on The Functionalist Theory of Society. Parsons’ system theory is summarised in the second half of the post.

This post has mainly been written for students studying A-level Sociology. It should be useful as part of the compulsory Theory and Methods module, usually studied in the second year.

Robert Merton was also famous for this Strain Theory of Deviance.

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!

Source: Adapted from Robb Webb’s Second Year A Level Sociology Text Book.

Sociological Perspectives on Social Policy and the Family

How do Functionalists, the New Right and Conflict theorists view social policies on the family?

The Functionalist View of Social Policy and The Family

Functionalists see society as built on harmony and consensus (shared values), and free from conflicts. They see the state as acting in the interests of society as a whole and its social policies as being for the good of all. Functionalists see policies as helping families to perform their functions more effectively and making life better for their members.

For example, Ronald Fletcher (1966) argues that the introduction of health, education and housing policies in the years since the industrial revolution has gradually led to the development of a welfare state that supports the family in performing its functions more effectively.

For instance, the existence of the National Health Service means that with the help of doctors, nurses, hospitals and medicines, the family today is better able to take care of its members when they are sick.

However, the functionalist view has been criticised on two main counts:

  • It assumes that all members of the family benefit equally from social policies, whereas Feminists argue that policies often benefit men more than women.
  • It assumes that there is a ‘march of progress’ with social policies, gradually making life better, which is a view criticise by Donzelot in the following section.

Adapted from Robb Webb et al

A Conflict Perspective – Donzelot: Policing the Family

Jacques Donzelot (1977) has a conflict view of society and sees policy as a form of state power and control over families.

Donzelot uses Michel Foucault’s (1976) concept of surveillance (observing and monitoring). Foucault sees power not just as something held by the government or the state, but as diffused (spread) throughout society and found within all relationships. In particular, Foucault sees professionals such as doctors and social workers as exercising power over their clients by using their expert knowledge to turn them into ‘cases’ to be dealt with.

Donzelot applies these ideas to the family. He is interested in how professionals carry out surveillance of families. He argues that social workers, health visitors and doctors use their knowledge to control and change families. Donzelot calls this ‘the policing of families’.

Surveillance is not targeted equally at all social classes. Poor families are much more likely to be seen as ‘problem families’ and as the causes of crime and anti-social behaviour. These are the families that professionals target for ‘improvement’. For example as Rachel Condry (2007) notes, the state may seek to control and regulate family life by imposing compulsory Parenting Orders through the courts. Parents of young offenders, truants or badly behaved children may be forced to attend parenting classes to learn the ‘correct’ way to bring up children.

Donzelot rejects the Functionalists’ march of progress view that social policy and the professionals who carry it out have created a better society. Instead he sees social policy as oppressing certain types of families. By focussing on the micro level of how the ‘caring professions’ act as agents of social control through the surveillance of families, Donzelot shows the importance of professional knowledge as a form of power and control.

However, Marxists and Feminists criticise Donzelot for failing to identify clearly who benefits from such policies of surveillance. Marxists argue that social policies generally operate in the interests of the capitalist class, while Feminists argue men are the beneficiaries.

Adapted from Rob Webb et al

The New Right and Social Policy

The New Right have had considerable influence on government thinking about social policy and its effects on family. They see the traditional nuclear family, with its division of labour between a male provider and a female home maker as self-reliant and capable of caring for its members. In their view, social policies should avoid doing anything that might undermine this natural self-reliant family.

The New Right criticise many existing government policies for undermining the family. In particular, they argue that governments often weaken the family’s self-reliance by providing overly generous welfare benefits. These include providing council housing for unmarried teenage mothers and cash payments to support lone parent families.

Charles Murray (1984) argues that these benefits offer ‘perverse incentives’ – that is, they reward irresponsible or anti-social behaviour. For example –

• If fathers see that the state will maintain their children some of them will abandon their responsibilities to their families

• Providing council housing for unmarried teenage mothers encourages young girls to become pregnant

• The growth of lone parent families encouraged by generous welfare benefits means more boys grow up without a male role model and authority figure. This lack of paternal authority is responsible for a rising crime rate amongst young males.

The New Right supports the following social polices

• Cuts in welfare benefits and tighter restrictions on who is eligible for benefits, to prevent ‘perverse incentives’.

• Policies to support the traditional nuclear family – for example taxes that favour married couples rather than cohabiting couples.

• The Child Support agency – whose role is to make absent dads pay for their children

Criticisms of the New Right

• Feminists argue that their polices are an attempt to justify a return to the traditional nuclear family, which works to subordinate women

• Cutting benefits may simply drive many into poverty, leading to further social problems

Feminism and Social Policy

Liberal Feminists argue that that changes such as the equal pay act and increasingly generous maternity leave and pay are sufficient to bring about gender equality. The following social policies have led to greater gender equality:

  • The divorce act of 1969 gave women the right to divorce on an equal footing to men – which lead to a spike in the divorce rate.
  • The equal pay act of 1972 was an important step towards women’s independence from men.
  • Increasingly generous maternity cover and pay made it easier for women to have children and then return to work.

However, Radical Feminists argue that patriarchy (the ideal of male superiority) is so entrenched in society that mere policy changes alone are insufficient to bring about gender equality. They argue, for example, that despite the equal pay act, sexism still exists in the sphere of work –

  • There is little evidence of the ‘new man’ who does their fair share of domestic chores. They argue 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 Feminists even argue that overly generous maternity cover compared to paternity cover reinforces the idea that women should be the primary child carer, unintentionally disadvantaging women
  • Dunscmobe and Marsden (1995) argue 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.
  • This last point is more difficult to assess as it is much harder to quantify emotion work compared to the amounts of domestic work and paid work carried out by men and women.
  • Class differences also play a role – with working class mothers suffering more because they cannot afford childcare.
  • Mirlees- Black points out that ¼ women experience domestic violence – and many are reluctant to leave their partner

New Labour and Family Policy

New Labour was in power from between 1997 – 2010. There are three things you need to know about New Labour’s Social Policies towards the family

1. New Labour seemed to be more in favour of family diversity than the New Right. For example –

In 2004 they introduced The Civil Partner Act which gave same sex couples similar rights to heterosexual married couples

In 2005 they changed the law on adoption, giving unmarried couples, including gay couples, the right to adopt on the same basis as married couples

2. Despite their claims to want to cut down on welfare dependency, New Labour were less concerned about ‘the perverse incentives of welfare’ than the New Right. During their terms of office, they failed to take ‘tough decisions on welfare’ – putting the well-being of children first by making sure that even the long term unemployed families and single mothers had adequate housing and money.

3. New Labour believes in more state intervention in family life than the New Right. They have a more positive view of state intervention, thinking it is often necessary to improve the lives of families.

For example in June 2007 New Labour established the Department for Children, Schools and Families. This was the first time that there was ever a ‘department for the family’ in British politics.

The Government’s aim of this department was to ensure that every child would get the best possible start in life, receiving the on-going support and protection that they – and their families – need to allow them to fulfil their potential. The new Department would play a strong role both in taking forward policy relating to children and young people, and coordinating and leading work across Government and youth and family policy.

Key aspects included:

  • Raising school standards for all children and young people at all ages.
  • Responsibility for promoting the well-being, safety, protection and care of all young people.
  • Responsibility for promoting the health of all children and young people, including measures to tackle key health problems such as obesity, as well as the promotion of youth sport
  • Responsibility for promoting the wider contribution of young people to their communities.

Signposting

This post has been written primarily for students of A-level sociology, and is one of the main topics in the families and households module, usually taught in the first year of study.

Related posts include:

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!

Hirschi’s Social Control Theory of Crime

A consensus theory which argues that crime increases when the bonds attaching the individual to society weaken

The ‘Social Control’ Theory sees crime as a result of social institutions losing control over individuals. Weak institutions such as certain types of families, the breakdown of local communities, and the breakdown of trust in the government and the police are all linked to higher crime rates.

Hirschi: Bonds of Attachment

Travis Hirschi argued that criminal activity occurs when an individual’s attachment to society is weakened. This attachment depends on the strength of social bonds that hold people to society. According to Hirschi there are four social bonds that bind us together – Attachment; Commitment; Involvement and Belief.

According to this theory one would predict the ‘typical delinquent’ to be young, single, unemployed and probably male. Conversely, those who are married and in work are less likely to commit crime – those who are involved and part of social institutions are less likely to go astray.

Truancy
According to Social Control Theory, truancy is an indicator of low social-attachment, and thus a predictor of criminal behaviour

 

Politicians of all persuasions tend to talk in terms of social control theory. Jack Straw from the labour party has argued that ‘lads need dads’ and David Cameron has made recent speeches about the importance of the family and the problems associated with absent fathers. These views are also popular with the right wing press, which often reminds their (middle class, nuclear family) readers that ‘Seventy per cent of young offenders come from lone-parent families; children from broken homes’

Supporting evidence for Hirschi’s Social Control Theory

Evidence for Social Control Theory tends to focus on three problem areas that are correlated with higher crime rates. These are: Absentee parents; Truancy; Unemployment

The Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (Farington and West 1991). Looked at 411 ‘working class’ males born in 1953 who were studied until their late 30s. Found that offenders were more likely to come from poorer, single parent families with poor parenting and parents who were themselves offenders. This study suggests that good primary socialisation is essential in preventing crime.

Martin Glyn has pointed out that many young offenders suffer from what he calls ‘parent deficit’. He argues that this is the single most important factor in explaining youth offending. He argues that children need both discipline and love, two things that are often both absent with absent parents.

Research commissioned by NASUWT, a teachers’ union, based on reviewing existing literature and in depth studies of two schools in Birmingham and London found that Family breakdown and a lack of father figures could be to blame for pupils joining gangs, Children as young as nine are being drawn into organised crime for protection and to gain a “sense of belonging” because of the lack of positive role models at home, it is claimed. Others are being effectively “born into” gangs as membership is common among older brothers and even parents in some areas. The problem is increasingly threatening some inner-city schools, with teachers claiming that the influence of gang culture has soared over the past three years.

Criticisms of Social Control Theory

  • Some crimes are more likely to be committed by people with lots of social connections – e.g. Corporate Crime
  • Marxism – It’s unfair to blame marginalised people – they are victims of an unfair society which does not provide sufficient opportunities for work etc.
  • Interactionism – Middle class crimes are less likely to appear in the statistics – In reality the attached (middle classes) are just as criminal.
  • By focussing on the crimes of the marginalised, the right wing elite dupe the public into thinking we need them to protect us from criminals (whereas in reality we need protecting from the elite)
  • This may be a case of blaming the victim – We need to look at structural factors that lead to family breakdown (poverty, long working hours, unemployment.)
  • Parent deficit does not automatically lead to children becoming criminals. There are also ‘pull factors’ such as peer group pressure.

Revision Notes for Sale 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Crime and Deviance Revision Notes  – 31 pages of revision notes covering the following topics:

  1. Consensus based theories part 1 – Functionalism; Social control’ theory; Strain theory
  2. Consensus based theories part 2 – Sub cultural theories
  3. The Traditional Marxist and Neo-Marxist perspective on crime
  4. Labeling Theory
  5. Left- Realist and Right-Realist Criminology (including situational, environmental and community crime prevention)
  6. Post-Modernism, Late-Modernism and Crime (Social change and crime)
  7. Sociological Perspectives on  controlling crime – the role of the community and policing in preventing crime
  8. Sociological Perspectives on Surveillance
  9. Sociological Perspectives on Punishment
  10. Social Class and Crime
  11. Ethnicity and Crime
  12. Gender and crime  (including Girl gangs and Rape and domestic violence)
  13. Victimology – Why are some people more likely to be criminals than others
  14. Global crime, State crime and Environmental crime (Green crime)
  15. The Media and Crime, including moral panics

 

Functionalist, Marxist and New Right Perspectives on Education

A brief video I put together to help revise the Functionalist, Marxist and New Right Perspectives on Education – basically just some key points and evaluations for each of these sociological theories.

Functionalism – Social solidarity, skills for work, bridge between home and society, role allocation and meritocracy

Marxism – The reproduction and legitimation of class inequality and the correspondence principle

The New Right – Marketisation, league tables, the National Curriculum and New Vocationalism

The slide show goes through each perspective three times – each repeat has less information. The idea is that you can test yourself as you go….. It’s deliberately designed to be ‘no frills’ btw!

The Functionalist Perspective – Class Notes for A Level Sociology (Year 2)

These class notes on Functionalist Theory should be all you need to revise this topic for your A level sociology exam

The key ideas of Functionalist perspective are as follows –

  1. There is such a thing as a social structure that exists independently from individuals. This social structure consists of norms values passed on through institutions which shape the individual –
  2. We should study society scientifically and at the macro level – looking for the general laws that explain human action.
  3. Socialisation is important – individuals need to be regulated for the benefit of everyone. The integration and regulation of individuals is a good thing.
  4. We should analyse society as a system – look at each bit by looking at the contribution it makes to the whole
  5. Social institutions generally perform positive functions – value consensus social integration; social regulation; preventing anomie and so on
  6. Advanced Industrial society is better than primitive society – one of the main reasons social order is so important is so we don’t go backwards – (ties into the idea of progress)

You would do well to be able to distinguish between the ideas of Emile Durkheim – one of the founding fathers of Sociology and Talcott Parsons – who developed Functionalism in the 1940s and 50s.

Durkheim and Functionalism

Durkheim is one of the founding fathers of Sociology. He basically believed that social structure and social order were important because they constrained individual selfishness. However, he realized that as societies evolved, so people became more individualistic – more free – and so maintaining social order became more of a problem for society. The question of how social order was to be achieved in complex societies was one of his chief concerns.

 Emile Durkheim 1858-1917: The first ever ‘Professor of Sociology’ Durkheim: The Historical Context In order to understand Durkheim’s work you need to understand the historical context in which he was writing. Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was a student of the Positivist Auguste Comte. Durkheim and the first ever professor of Sociology. Durkheim’s major works were published between 1893 and 1912 – so he was writing in the middle of modernity and experiencing the industrialisation and urbanisation of France. Durkheim believed that the social changes ushered in by modernity threatened social order and his sociology is a response to this. His social research had two main concerns

  • He wanted to ensure that modern societies were harmonious and orderly  
  • He wanted to create a science of society so that we could generate clear knowledge about how to bring about social order

1.    There is such a thing as a ‘Social Structure’

Durkheim believed that there was such a thing as a social structure – made up of norms and values. He argued that this structure existed above the level of the individual because norms and values precede the individual – they already exist in society when we are born into it. Durkheim believed that people’s behaviour was shaped by the system of norms and values that they were born into.

Durkheim believed that the social structure consisted of ‘social facts‘ – phenomena which were external to the individual and constrained their ways of acting…

Durkheim

2.     Sociologists should use scientific methods to uncover the basic laws that govern human behaviour

Much of Durkheim’s work was aimed at demonstrating the importance of organic solidarity and also trying to find out what societies must do in order to achieve organic solidarity. In order to do this he argued that we needed to use objective, social scientific methods to find out the general laws that govern societies.. You should refer to the section on Durkheim’s scientific methods and his study of suicide in the Positivism/ sociology and science handout.

3 Individuals need to be restrained

Durkheim believed that individuals had a biological tendency to be naturally selfish and look out for themselves and that it was up to society to regulate these naturally selfish desires ultimately for the benefit of all. Too much freedom is bad for both the individual and society. This is quite an obvious idea really – all Durkheim believed is that greater levels of human happiness and ‘progress’ could be achieved if people cooperated together rather than competing like animals in a war of all against all over scarce resources.

Societies somehow have to ensure that individual’s naturally selfish tendencies are restrained and in order to do this societies need to create a sense of social solidarity – which is making individuals feel as if they part of something bigger and teaching them the standards of acceptable behaviour – a process Durkheim called Moral regulation.

Both Social Solidarity and Moral Regulation rely on the effective socialisation of individuals into the wider society. Socialisation is the process whereby individuals learn the norms and values of a society.

Key Term – Social Solidarity Where there is a sense of feeling part of something greater. A shared feeling of working together to achieved the collectively agreed on goals of society.

Achieving solidarity in advanced industrial society is difficult

Durhkeim argued that solidarity and moral regulation were achieved in different ways in primitive and advanced industrial societies. In the former, solidarity happens automatically, while in the later it is more difficult to achieve.

In Primitive society, for Example: Feudal Britain, before industrializati were small scale and locally based, with people living in the same area all their lives. There was also very little role differentiation and no complex division of labour. Generally speaking, people have shared experiences of the same village, the same activities and the same people all there lives. Durkheim argued that when people share the same reality and the same goals, and are closely reliant on one another, moral regulation and social solidarity are easily achieved. People also shared one religion which provided a shared set of moral codes to all people. Durkheim referred to this situation as mechanical solidarity: Solidarity based on similarity.

In advanced Industrial society the number of specialised tasks increase and the Division of Labour becomes more complex. Individuals become more interdependent as people become less self-sufficient and more dependent on a larger number of people that they do not know. As a result, the ability of religion to provide the same moral codes to all individuals declines. The problem is that people no longer lead the same lives, they are different to each other, and modern societies need to find a way of achieving solidarity based on difference rather than solidarity based on similarity.

Because of these differences, Modern societies run the risk of excessive individualism and face a ‘crisis of moral regulation’, a condition which Durkheim called ‘anomie’  and Durkheim thus argued that achieve moral regulation and regulating individuals was the primary problem facing advanced industrial societies. The problem was one of achieving  ‘organic solidarity’: ‘social solidarity based on difference

Durkehim argued that, given the decline of religion, labour organizations and education would provide society with the necessary moral regulation in advanced industrial societies. Focussing on education, Durkheim argued that what education does is simultaneously teach us the diverse skills required for an advanced division of labour and provide us with shared norms and values through the teaching of subjects such as history and with there being shared assemblies.

Key Term – Anomie Where modern social systems encourage excessive individualism – as a consequence there is a general lack of agreement around norms and values – some commentators describe anomie as a state of normlessness.

 

Talcott Parson’s Functionalism

Writing in the 1940s and 1950s Talcott Parsons built on Durkheim’s work

4.    The Organic Analogy[1] – we should see society as a system

Talcott Parsons saw society as working like a human body, arguing that that institutions in society were like organs in the body – each performing specific functions that were necessary to the maintenance of the whole. Parsons argued that parts of society should be understood in terms of what they contribute to the maintenance of the whole.

The body The Organic Analogy Institutions
Each Organ has a unique function Institutions have a unique function
All the bits essentially work together harmoniously All institutions work together harmoniously
Organs are interdependent Organs are interdependent
Has an identifiable boundary Has an identifiable boundary
The sum is greater than its parts The sum is greater than its parts.
Normal: healthy Normal: low rates social problems.

5.    Institutions perform positive functions

Following the organic analogy, Parsons sought to understand institutions by analyzing the positive functions they played in the maintenance of social order. Some of the positive functions Parsons identified include those below

  • Institutions generally promote Value Consensus – One of the most important functions of social institutions is the creation of value consensus – which is agreement around shared values. Parsons argued that commitment to common values is the basis for order in society. Two of the most important shared values include a belief in the work ethic and a belief in meritocracy. Parsons argued these were both vital to modern society because a work ethic ensures people value working rather than lazing about and meritocracy means people believe that hard work should be rewarded.
  • The Family is responsible for passing on the basic norms and values of our society – it provides early socialization; the stabilization of adult personalities and also somewhere for people to escape from the pressures of modern life – acting as a release valve.
  • Education integrates individuals into wider society – providing individuals with a sense of belonging and identity to the wider society. Parsons argued, for example, that education does this through teaching us a shared history and language.
  • Other institutions regulate individual behavior through social sanctions, preventing crime and deviance escalating out of control.

The Idea of Functional Pre-requisites

Parsons believed that societies had certain functional prerequisites. Functional pre-requisites are things that societies need in order to survive. Just like human beings need certain things to survive, so every society has to have certain things in order to function properly. For example, a society must produce and distribute resources such as food and shelter; there has to be some kind of organization that resolves conflicts, and others that socialize the young.

According to Parsons a social system has four needs which must be met for continued survival – These are adaptation, goal attainment, integration and latency.  In advanced industrial society, these needs are met through specialized sub systems

Parson’s name for each function (AGIL) This means…. Performed by what institutions?
Adaptation Adapt to the environment and the production of goods and services
Goal Attainment Decide what goals society as a whole should aim to achieve
Integration Achieve social cohesion
Latency (Pattern Maintenance) Socialise the young into shared values

Parsons argued that society’s needs must come before the needs of the individual. This is why he is so keen to stress the importance of the family and education passing on particular norms and values that bind people together in value consensus.

Stretch and Challenge – find out more about Functional- Prerequisites
Functionalist theory about what ‘needs’ societies have is far from perfect. Their theories about what needs societies have come from the following two sources -Sociologists and Anthropologists have studies thousands of different societies and cultures to discover if there are any institutions which appear in all of them. George Peter Murdock in the 1940s argued that the family exists in every society while Davis and Moore (1960s) argued that there is some form of stratification system in every society. Functionalists thus concluded that at the very least societies need some form of family and some form of stratification system in order to survive.Marion J Levy (1952) reflected on what kinds of conditions would lead to the collapse of society. She argued that this  would happen if members became extinct, if they became totally apathetic, involved in a war of all against all, or if they were absorbed into another society. Thus she argued that all societies needed mechanisms to ensure that these things did not happen. It follows that societies needed some kind of mechanism for reproducing new members.

 

6. Social change and social evolution

Parsons viewed social change as a process of ‘social evolution’ from simple hunter-gatherer societies to more complex forms of advanced industrial society. More complex forms of society are better because they are more adaptive – more able to respond to changes in the environment, more innovative, and more able to harness the talents of a wider range of individuals (because they are meritocratic). They are thus more able to survive. (This is actually quite Darwinian – human beings thrive more than monkeys because they are more able to adapt their environment to suit them – advanced industrial societies thrive because they are more able to adapt their environment compared to hunter- gatherer societies.)

Parsons argued that initially economic and technological changes lead to societies evolving, but increasingly values become the driving force behind social progress. He argued that the values of advanced industrial societies were superior to those of traditional societies because modern values allow a society to be more adaptive, whereas traditional values are more likely to prevent change and keep things the way they are.Now reflecting back to Parson’s analysis of the family and education, we can see that the reason he stresses the importance of these is because they are keeping together the most advanced society – the best – if the family etc. collapse, we may regress back to a more primitive form of social organisation.

Crticisms of the Functionalist Perspective

1.    Is there really a ‘structure’ that exists independently of individuals? 

 2.    It is difficult to assess the effects of institutions – In order to establish whether an institution has positive functions, one would need to accurately measure all of the effects an institution actually had on all individuals and all other institutions. This is extremely difficult to do because it is impossible to isolate the effects of an institution on other things.

3.Functionalism exaggerates the extent of Value consensus and Social Order – Parsons is criticized for assuming value consensus exists rather than actually proving it

4.Michael Mann argues that social stability might be because of lack of consensus rather than because of it. If everyone really believed in the value of achievement then disorder might result because not everyone can get the highest reward. It follows that social stability is more likely if the people at the bottom of society – the majority are tuned out.

5.Functionalism is a deterministic theory – Human behavior is portrayed as being shaped by the social system, as if individuals are programmed b social institutions.

 6.Functionalism ignores conflict and coercion  – Marxists argue that mainstream social values – like those in pattern variable B, are actually the values of elite groups, and thus social order is imposed on the majority by a relatively small group of elite actors.

7.    Functionalism is Ideological  – Functionalism is a conservative social theory. By arguing that certain institutions are necessary – such as the family, religion and stratification systems – they are actually justifying the existence of the social order as it is, also by focussing on the positive functions

So is Functionalism still relevant today?

Despite the flaws mentioned above perhaps Functionalism should not be rejected out of hand –

The idea that we can usefully look at society as a system and that the parts are interdependent is an assumption made by governments who inject money into education or welfare in order to achieve a desired end.

Similarly the idea that we can help countries develop from primitive to advanced by giving aid is still a very common idea, and many in the developing world aspire to become like countries in the West.

Finally, statistics still reveal some interesting correlations between someone’s position in the social structure and their chances of something happening to them. For example….

Related Posts

The Functionalist Perspective on The Family

The Functionalist Perspective on Education

Modernisation Theory (kind of Functionalist applied to Global Development)

Find out More: Basic info

This History Learning Site post has a very basic overview of Functionalism

Find out More: Extension sources

This video from the School of Life provides a useful non-A Level version of Durkheim’s thought – A level Sociology really oversimplifies Durkheim to the point of mis-teaching him (sorry folks!) so this video might be a better starting point than all of the material above…

 

The Functionalist Perspective on Education

Functionalists focus on the positive functions of education – creating social solidarity, teaching core values and work skills and role allocation/ meritocracy

Functionalists focus on the positive functions performed by the education system. There are four positive functions that education performs

1. Creating social solidarity
2. Teaching skills necessary for work
3. Teaching us core values
4. Role Allocation and meritocracyFunctionalist perspective on education mind map for A-level sociology

Creating Social Solidarity

We have social solidarity when we feel as if we are part of something bigger. Emile Durkheim argued that school makes us feel like we are part of something bigger. This is done through the learning of subjects such as history and English which give us a shared sense of identity. Also in American schools, children pledge allegiance to the flag.

Durkheim argued that ‘school is a society in miniature.’ preparing us for life in wider society. For example, both in school and at work we have to cooperate with people who are neither friends or family – which gets us ready for dealing with people at work in later life.

Learning specialist skills for work

Durkheim noted that an advanced industrial economy required a massive and complex Division of Labour. At school, individuals learn the diverse skills necessary for this to take place. For example, we may all start off learning the same subjects, but later on we specialize when we do GCSEs.

Teaching us core values

Talcott Parsons argued that education acts as the ‘focal socializing agency’ in modern society. School plays the central role in the process of secondary socialisation, taking over from primary socialisation. He argued this was necessary because the family and the wider society work in different principles and children need to adapt if they re to cope In the wider world.

In the family, children are judged according to what he calls particularistic standards by their parents – that is they are judged by rules that only apply to that particular child. Individual children are given tasks based on their different abilities and judged according to their unique characteristics. Parents often adapt rules to suit the unique abilities of the child.

In contrast in school and in wider society, children and adults are judged according to the same universalistic standards (i.e they are judged by the same exams and the same laws). These rules and laws are applied equally to all people irrespective of the unique character of the individual. School gets us ready for this.

The above ties in quite nicely with the modernisation theory view of development – achieved status is seen as a superior system to the ascribed status found in traditional societies. 

Role Allocation and meritocracy

Education allocates people to the most appropriate job for their talents using examinations and qualifications. This ensures that the most talented are allocated to the occupations that are most important for society. This is seen to be fair because there is equality of opportunity – everyone has a chance of success and it is the most able who succeed through their own efforts – this is known as meritocracy

Positive evaluations of the Functionalist view on education

School performs positive functions for most pupils most of the time – even though students might not want to go to school sometimes and not necessarily enjoy school some of the time, the majority come out after 13 years of formal schooling as reasonable human beings.

There does seem to be a link between education and economic growth, suggesting a good education system benefits the wider society and economy. All countries in Western Europe have very good education systems while many poorer countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have many more problems with their education systems, such as low attendance rates.

Exclusion and truancy rates are very low, suggesting there is very little active resistance to schooling.

Schools do try to foster ‘solidarity’ – through PSHE lessons and teaching British Values for example.

Education is more ‘work focused’ today – increasing amounts of vocational courses. If you look at post-16 education especially there is a lot of diverse courses offered and it it is difficult to see how technologically advanced post-industrial economies could function without a thriving post-16 and university sectors.

Schooling is more meritocratic than in the 19th century (fairer)

Criticisms of the Functionalist View of Education

Marxists argue the education system is not meritocratic – e.g. private schools benefit the wealthy.

Today, school focuses more on developing the individual rather than teaching duties and responsibilities that individuals should adopt towards society – it’s more about the individual and less about solidarity

Functionalism ignores the negative sides of school – e.g. bullying and there are a minority for who it doesn’t work, such as those permanently excluded.

Postmodernists argue that ‘teaching to the test’ since Marketisation kills creativity.

Functionalism reflects the views of the powerful – the education system tends to work for them and they suggests there is nothing to criticise.

It is difficult to argue that schools performed any of the above four functions during the disruption caused by the government’s response to the pandemic, especially not being judged by universalistic standards (no standardized exams) or meritocracy (because private school teachers inflated their students’ grades more than state school teachers).

You might also like my brief vodcast on the same topic…

Sociology of Education Revision Bundle

Education Revision Bundle Cover

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my sociology of education revision notes bundle – which contains the following:

  1. 34 pages of revision notes
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering various topics within the sociology of education
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers
  4. how to write sociology essays, including 7 specific templates and model answers on the sociology of education

Test Yourself:

The Functionalist Perspective on Education Key Terms Quiz (Quizlet)

Signposting/ Related Posts

This post has been written primarily for students studying the education topic, as part of the AQA’s A-Level Sociology course.

The Functionalist perspective on education is usually the first discrete topic taught within the sociology of education module.

After reading this post you might like to read this Evaluations of Functionalism post which discusses the strengths and limitations of this perspective in more depth

After Functionalism students usually study The Marxist Perspective on Education which criticises much of what Functionalists say about the topic.

A related perspective is The New Right View of Education which is usually taught as an updated and modified version of Functionalism, more relevant to society today.

You might also like this summary of perspectives on education grid, although you might need to squint to see it (update pending!)

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!

 

Family essay plan – Modern nuclear family….

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.

The Functionalist Perspective on the Family

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!

nuclear-family-uk
Is the nuclear family universal?

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

  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 institutions could perform the functions above.
  3. 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.

gender-role-socialisation
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’

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.

  1. 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
  2. Related to the above point one of the main functions is primary socialisation – teaching children the basic norms and values of society.
  3. This kind of overlaps with the above, but even during secondary socialisation, the family is expected to help educated children alongside the school.
  4. The family provides psychological security and security, especially for men one might say (as with the ‘warm bath theory’.)
  5. A further positive function is elderly care, with many families still taking on this responsibility.
  6. 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

Families Revision Bundle Cover

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my AS Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle which contains the following:

  1. 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
  4.  9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.

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

Related Posts

The Functionalist perspective on the family is usually the very first topic taught within the the families and households module.

It is usually followed and critiqued by the Marxist perspective on the family and Feminist Perspectives on the family.