What are the functions of the family today?

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

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

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

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

The functions of the family in pre-industrial society

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

The Functions of the family in industrial society

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

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

The changing functions of the family

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

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

The family as a unit of production

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

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

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

Caring for the young, old sick and poor

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

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

Education of children

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

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

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

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

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

Primary socialisation and control of children

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

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

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

The stabilisation of adult personalities

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

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

Public Opinion on Labour’s Policies – Far from Value Consensus?

Some recent opinion polls really seem to suggest that the British population have very different political views, suggesting there really is no such thing as value consensus around key issues, as key Functionalist thinkers suggested many decades ago.

According to The Week (30 November 2019) the following rather large differences in opinion have emerged from political polling…

45% of Britons are in favour of Labour’s policy to nationalise the gas and electric companies, 29% are oppossed

56% support nationalising the rail network, but 22% oppose

54% of Britons support putting employees in a third of corporate board seats, while 21 are opposed.

However, according to a recent YouGov poll, there does seem to be value consensus around the idea of providing free broadband for all, at least the vast majority of people support it (just not the means to provide it for free!)

A broad value consensus?

The stats above are all from a recent YouGov poll, you can find out more details here.

Functionalism in Pictures

A selection of images to represent some of the main Functionalist concepts for A level sociology. Concepts covered include the organic analogy, socialisation, integration, regulation, anomie and more!

Pictures are a powerful tool for simplifying key concepts in A-level sociology. In this post I select what I think are some of the most relevant pictures which represent some of the key concepts relevant to the Functionalist perspective on society.

The Organic Analogy/ society as a system

Institutions in society work together, like  organs in a body

Social Structure

Society’s Structure is made up of institutions

Social Facts

Durkheim theorized that social facts were ways of thinking, feeling and acting which were external to the individual and which constrained the individual.

Value Consensus

Society is based on shared values

Social Evolution

Societies gradually become more complex over time.

Mechanical and Organic Solidarity

Functional Fit Theory

The nuclear family emerged to ‘fit’ industrial society

Socialisation

Individuals learn the norms and values of society, within institutions

Stabilisation of Adult Personalities

Traditional gender roles within the nuclear family provide necessary emotional and psychological support for individuals.

Meritocracy

Individuals are rewarded on the basis of effort + ability. Both meritocracy and role allocation are key ideas in the Functionalist perspective on education.

Role Allocation

Where the exam system ‘sifts’ people into appropriate jobs based on their level of achievement

Social Integration

The more connections people have to others and institutions within society, the more integrated they are.

Social Regulation

Social regulation is the extent to which there are clear norms and value (‘rules’) which guide people in life.

Anomie

Anomie is a state of normlessness, brought on by rapid social change or breakdown. Lack of social integration or regulation can both lead to anomie

Functionalism in pictures final thoughts

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of concepts, or definitive definitions, the idea of this post is to ‘simplify to the extreme’. For more in depth posts on Functionalism, please follow the links on my Theory and Methods page!

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Is Religion a Source of Consensus or Conflict?

Functionalism is the only perspective which has traditionally argued that religion is a source of value consensus, all other perspectives disagree with this in one way or another, but not all believe that religion is necessarily a cause of overt conflict in the world.

Functionalism

  • Functionalists generally argue that religion promotes value consensus in a society.
  • Durkheim argued that in traditional societies, religious symbols such as the totem represented society, and thus when people worshipped religion, they were really worshipping society.
  • Parsons and Malinowski both believed religious rituals helped people deal with life-crises, such as death, thus helping keep societies together during times of change.
  • Parsons further believed that religions form the moral basis of law in society, for example the 10 commandments in Christian societies.
  • Bellah argues that civil religions bind people together in contemporary societies.

Marxism

  • Marx believed that religion prevents revolution (or violent conflict) by pacifying people, through acting as the ‘opium of the masses’ and making think inequality is Gods will and that suffering in this life is a virtue. The message is to put up with suffering now and seek your reward in heaven.
  • However, in Marxist theory, the masses will eventually see through the mask of oppression and rise up bringing about a revolution and a communist society free of religion.

Neo-Marxism

  • Religion can be a source of conflict because it is autonomous from the economic base.
  • For example, religious leaders in Latin America took the side of peasant against the elite. However, attempts at social reform were ultimately repressed.

Feminism

  • Simone de Beauvoir argued that Religion oppresses women in the same way that Marx argued it oppressed people in general.
  • However, Feminism in general points out how traditional religion oppresses women and brings women into conflict with religion, especially right-wing versions of it.
  • Feminine forms of spirituality generally emphasis peacefulness, and so don’t really act as a source of conflict.

Secularisation theory

  • You can use this to argue that religion has lost its capacity to do anything, positive or negative in society.
  • It seems especially unlikely that postmodern forms of religion, such as the New Age Movement are going to be sources of conflict.

Huntington – the clash of civilisations

  • Religion has become more important as a source of identity in a postmodern global world where other sources of identity have faded.
  • As societies come into closer contact because of globalisation, they rub up against each other and people become more aware of their differences, and thus religion becomes a source of conflict.
  • Karen Armstrong criticises this, suggesting that politics and economics matter more than religion as sources of conflict in the world today.

Evaluate the view that religious beliefs and organisations are barriers to social change (20)

The above question appears on the AQA’s 2016 Paper 2 Specimen Paper.

The Question and the Item (as on the paper)

Read Item B and answer the question that follows.

Item B

Many sociologists argue that religious beliefs and organisations act as conservative forces and barriers to social change. For example, religious doctrines such as the Hindu belief in reincarnation or Christian teachings on the family have given religious justification to existing social structures.

Similarly, it is argued that religious organisations such as churches are often extremely wealthy and closely linked to elite groups and power structures.

Applying material from Item B and your knowledge, evaluate the view that religious beliefs and organisations are barriers to social change (20)

Suggested essay plan

Decode

  • The question asks for beliefs and organization, so deal with both.
  • Remember you should look at this in global perspective (it’s on the spec).
  • Remember to use the item. NB all of the material in item is covered in the plan below, all you would need to do in an essay is reference it!
  • Stay mainly focused on the arguments in the first section below.

Arguments and evidence for the view that religion is a barrier to social change

Functionalism

Parsons argued religions maintains social order: it promotes value consensus as many legal systems are based on religious morals.

It also maintains stability in times of social change (when individuals die), and helps people make sense of changes within society, thus helping prevent anomie/ chaos and potentially more disruptive change.

Marxism

 Religion prevents change through ideological control and false consciousness. It teaches that inequality and injustice are God’s will and thus there is no point trying to change it.

 Religion also prevents change by being the ‘opium of the masses’. It makes a virtue out of suffering, making people think they will be rewarded in the afterlife and that if they just put up with their misery now, they’ll get reward later,.

Feminism

 Simone de Beauvoir – religion is used by men to justify their position of power, and to compensate women for their second-class status. It oppresses women in the same way Marx said it oppresses the proletariat.

The Church (typically a conservative force)

The church tends to be closely tied to existing political and economic power structures: the Church of England is closely tied to the state for example: the Queen is closely related and Bishops sit in the Lords. Also most members and attendees are middle class. It thus tends to resist radical social change.

World Accommodating and World Affirming NBMs

World Accommodating NRMs can help prevent change by helping members cope with their suffering in the day to day.

World Affirming Movements (such as TM) reinforce dominant values such as individualism and entrepeneurialism.

Arguments and evidence against the view that religion is a barrier to social change

Liberation Theology

Some Catholic priests in Latin America in the 70s took up the cause of landless peasants and criticized the inequalities in the region.

However, they were largely unsuccessful!

Max Weber

 The protestant ethic gave rise to the spirit of Capitalism (Calvinism and Entrepreneurialism etc.)

Feminism

El Saadawi – It’s Patriarchy, not Islam that has oppressed women… but it is possible for women to fight back against it (as she herself does)

Carol P Christ – believes there are diverse ways to ‘knowing the Goddess’ and criticizes dualistic thinking and the idea that any religion can have  a monopoly on truth

Some World Rejecting NRMs

E.G. The Nation of Islam have aimed to bring about radical social change

The New Age Movement

Encourages individualism and pick and mixing of different religions, so encourages diversity and hybrid religions to emerge.

Secularization

Means religion has less power in society, and thus is less able to act as a barrier to social change.

Thoughts on a conclusion

Make sure you distinguish between beliefs and organizations and types of social change

Structural Differentiation and Religion

According to Talcott Parsons, the disengagement of the church from social life might not necessarily mean that the church is any less important at a social level.

Parsons argues that societies evolve through a process of ‘structural differentiation’ – as societies become more complex, a greater variety of more specialized institutions evolved.

Parsons accepts that religious institutions play less of a role in politics and in the socialization of children than they did in the past, but these functions are taken over by newly evolved institutions – such as representative government and education.

Traditional institutions such as the church evolve to limit themselves to performing a smaller number of functions than previously, but these functions are still vital to the maintenance of the system as a whole.

In modern societies, religious institutions perform three important functions:

  • They form the basis of morality and the legal system – for example, the 10 commandments form much of the basis of the legal system in modern Britain.
  • They help people deal with social changes such as the death of individuals – through providing rituals that help them cope with transition. This helps maintain social order.
  • They help people deal with social contradictions – such as lazy people being rich… according to Christian doctrine, they will go to hell.

For more on Parson’s functionalist perspective on the role of religion in society – please see this post

Links to other parts of the course….

NB – Parsons argues that all institutions undergo a process of structural differentiation. His view on how religion changes with social modernization is similar to his view on how the family changes – as outlined in his ‘Functional Fit Theory‘ of the family.

This theory of structural differentiation is part of his general functionalist theory of social change as evolution.

Religion and Social Change

Does religion cause social change, or prevent it?

Functionalists and Traditional Marxists have generally argued that religion prevents social change. Neo-Marxists and the Social Action theorist Max Weber have argued that religion can be a force for social change.

There are wide variety of opinions with Feminist thought as to the relationship between religion and social change. Some Feminists tend to side with the view that religion prevents social change. Other Feminists recognise the potential for religion to bring about social change.

This post considers some of the arguments and evidence against the view that religion prevents social change.

Arguments and evidence for the view that religion prevents social change

Functionalist thinkers Malinowski and Parsons both argued that religion prevents social change by helping individuals and society cope with disruptive events that might threaten the existing social order. Most obviously, religion provides a series of ceremonies which help individuals and societies cope with the death of individual members.

Marx believed that religion helped to preserve the existing class structure. According to Marx religious beliefs serve to justify the existing, unequal social order and prevent social change by making a virtue out of poverty and suffering. Religion also teaches people that it is pointless striving for a revolution to bring about social change in this life. Rather, it is better to focus on ‘being a good Christian’ (for example) and then you will receive your just rewards in heaven.

Neo-Marxist Otto Maduro argued that historically the Catholic Church in Latin America tended to prevent social change. It did so by supporting existing economic and political elites, thus justifying the unequal social order. However, he also recongised that religion had the potential to be a force for social change (see below)

Arguments and evidence for the view that religion causes social change 

Max Weber’s ‘Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ is one of the best loved accounts of how religion can bring about social change. Weber pointed out that Capitalism developed first in England and Holland, taking off in the early 17th century (early 1600s). Just previous to Capitalism taking off, Protestantism was the main religion in these two countries, unlike most other countries in Europe at that time which were Catholic. To cut a very long winded theory short, Max Weber argued that the social norms instilled by Protestantism laid the foundations for modern capitalism.

Neo-Marxist Otto Maduro pointed to the example of Liberation Theology in Latin America to demonstrate that religion can act as a force for social change. He further suggested that this is especially the case where the marginalized have no other outlet for their grievances than religious institutions.

Reverend Martin Luther King and the broader Baptist Church in the Southern United States played a major role in the Civil Rights movement in 1960s America. This movement effectively helped to end racial segregation in America and secure more equal political rights for non-whites.

Martin Luther King was very much inspired by Gandhi’s religiously inspired practice of Non Violent Direct Action. This involved the use of peaceful protest and resisting of violence in order to bring about social change.

The Arab Spring which swept across the Middle East and North Africa between 2010-2014 offers a more contemporary example of the role of religion in social change. Islamic groups were very active in using social media to highlight the political injustices in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt.

This post is a work in progress, further details to be added in due course…!

Image Source 

http://ipost.christianpost.com/post/10-powerful-quotes-from-rev-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-on-faith

Beliefs in society revision bundle for sale

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  • 52 Pages of revision notes covering the entire AQA ‘beliefs in society’ specification: from perspectives on religion, organisations, class, gender ethnicity and age and secularisation, globalisation and fundamentalism.
  • Three 10 mark ‘outline and explain’ practice exam  questions and model answers
  • Three 10 mark ‘analyse using the item’ 10 practice exam questions and answers
  • Three 30 mark essay questions and extended essay plans.

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The Functionalist Perspective on Religion: Summary Revision Notes

According to Functionalism, religion acts as a conservative force by reinforcing social norms and promoting social solidarity. This post is A summary of the key ideas of the main Functionalist theorists of religion: Durkheim, Parsons and Malinowski.

According to Functionalism, religion acts as a conservative force by reinforcing social norms and promoting social solidarity. This post is A summary of the key ideas of the main Functionalist theorists of religion: Durkheim, Parsons and Malinowski.

The Functionalist Perspective on Religion_2.png

This is a work in progress, please click the links above for more detailed posts!

Emile Durkheim

  • Studied Totemism among Australian Aboriginal clans in which the sacred totem represented different clans.
  • Religious symbols are simultaneously symbols of God and Society, and thus when people worship religion they are also ‘worshipping society’, religious symbols serve as a simplified representation of a more complex whole, reminded individuals that they are merely small and part of a much ‘bigger picture’.
  • Religion acts as a constraining (conservative) force: through religious worship (ceremonies) the ‘collective conscience’ is imprinted on the individual: they literally ‘feel’ the weight of the community on them.
  • Religion reinforces a sense of belonging and shared identity to society.

Bronislow Malinowski

  • Argued religion had more specific functions than Durkheim:
  • Religion helps individuals to deal with the psychological stresses which occur in times of social change – such as births, marriage and deaths. Beliefs can help people ‘make sense’ of death for example and can act as a source of catharsis for the bereaved.
  • Religious rituals also help society through the disruption to social order caused by life changing events such as death.
  • Religion helps people deal with situations which they cannot predict or control – e.g. the Trobriand Islanders used religious ritual when fishing in the dangerous, unpredictable ocean, but not the calm lagoons.
  • Unlike Durkheim does not see religion as reflecting society as a whole, nor does he see religious ritual as ‘worshipping society’.

Talcott Parsons

  • Saw the main function of religion as being the maintenance of social order.
  • Religion promotes value consensus: many legal systems are based on religious morals for example.
  • Like Malinowski Parsons saw religious beliefs and rituals as helping maintain social order in times of social change (such as death) and to help individuals make sense of unpredictable events.
  • Religion can also help people make sense of contradictory events.

Criticisms of the Functionalist Perspective on Religion

  • Religion does not always promote harmony: it can promote conflict: there may be conflicts within religion, or between religions for example.
  • Ignores the role religion can play in promoting social change
  • Secularisation means that religion performs fewer functions today: thus functionalism may be less relevant.

Beliefs in society revision bundle for sale

If you like this sort of thing then you might like my ‘beliefs in society’ revision bundle.

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  • Eight mind maps covering the sociological perspectives on beliefs in society. In colour!
  • 52 Pages of revision notes covering the entire AQA ‘beliefs in society’ specification: from perspectives on religion, organisations, class, gender ethnicity and age and secularisation, globalisation and fundamentalism.
  • Three 10 mark ‘outline and explain’ practice exam  questions and model answers
  • Three 10 mark ‘analyse using the item’ 10 practice exam questions and answers
  • Three 30 mark essay questions and extended essay plans.

The content focuses on the AQA A-level sociology specification. All at a bargain price of just £4.99!

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Talcott Parsons’ Perspective on Religion

A summary of Talcott Parson’s functionalist perspective on religion

More than any other Functionalist, Parsons developed Functionalism as a ‘systems theory’: he understands the role of one institution in terms of how it maintains the whole system. You might find it useful to review his general systems approach to social theory here before reading the rest of this post.

Functionalism parsons religion.jpg

For Talcott Parsons, religion is one sub-system among many, and it performs vital but limited functions in the maintenance of social order.

Religion and Value Consensus

Parsons sees religion as part of the cultural sub-system of society and religious beliefs provide a guideline for human action which give rise to a more specific set of norms according to which people should act.

For example, in many Christian societies, the 10 commandments form the basis of laws which govern human behaviour, such as:

  • ‘Thou shalt not kill’ forms the basis of laws against murder
  • ‘Thou shalt not steal’ forms the basis of laws against property theft.

So for Parsons, religious belief provides a set of values, or general principles which form the basis of value consensus, which other institutions then reinforce in more concrete ways.

Religion and Social Order

Much like Malinowski, Parsons sees one of religion’s primary functions as being to help people deal with problems which disrupt social life. There are two categories of problem, which basically mirror Malinowski’s thinking on the matter:

  • Firstly, there are those occasions when people are hit by events which are totally unexpected and have a negative impact, the main example being premature death. In such situations, religion can help people make sense of these events and restore normal patterns of life. A religious belief in the afterlife, for example, offers the bereaved a way of imagining that their dead son/ wife/ friend is ‘waiting for them on the other side’, and so not really ‘gone’ forever.
  • Secondly, there are those routine aspects of life in which people invest considerable time and effort in order to achieve a particular outcome, but are still characterized by uncertainty of outcome. Agriculture is a good example of this: several weeks or even months of the year might be spent sowing and tending crops, only for the whole harvest to be laid waste by droughts or disease. In such situation, religious belief offers an explanation for the disastrous outcome, helps people cope with the hardships with may follow, and helps to restore faith in the initial effort made despite said disastrous outcome.

As with Malinowski, Parsons argues that religion serves to maintain social stability by relieving the tensions and frustrations that arise following such unpredictable problems.

Religion and Meaning

A third function of religion according to Parsons is that it helps individuals to make sense of experiences which are contradictory.

Probably the best example of this is the way religion helps people to make sense of the injustice of people who profit through immoral behaviour – Christianity, for example, says that these people will reap their punishment in the afterlife, by going to purgatory or hell, while those who ‘suffer virtuously in poverty’ in this life, will reap the reward of heaven.

Thus religion helps people to adjust to the various worldly experiences of inequality and injustice, again maintaining harmony.

Evaluations to follow

Sources 

 

Malinowski’s Perspective on Religion

A summary of Bonislow Mainowski’s perspective on religion.

The Anthropologist Bronislow Malinowski is the third of ‘three functionalist thinkers’ it’s useful to know about for A-level sociology, the others being Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons.

Malinowski was one of the founding fathers of anthropology, who lived as a participant-observer on the Trobriand Islands, in the South Pacific (near New Guinea) for four years between 1914 and 1918. He  developed his theory of religion based on his observations of the role of religion in this one small-scale society.

Malinowski Trobriand Islands

Religion and Life-Crises

Malinowski argued that the main function of religion was to help individuals and society deal with the emotional stresses which occur during life crises such as birth, puberty, marriage and death.

Death, for example, is socially disruptive, because it not only removes an individual member from the fabric of society, which potentially creates tension, it is also stressful for those with close emotional ties to the deceased, who may not be able to function efficiently for a period of time.

Religion deals with the problem of death through both belief and ritual: a belief in the afterlife (common in many cultures) denies the fact of death and comforts the bereaved, while the funeral ceremony offers a chance for other members of society to comfort the bereaved with their physical presence and it may also act as a form of catharsis.

The funeral is effectively an expression of social solidarity which serves to reintegrate society following the ‘stress’ caused by a loss of one its members.

Religion and control

Manlinowski argued that a second function of religion was to help people deal with situations or events which could not be fully controlled or predicted.

To illustrate this Malinowski contrasted the way in which two different types of fishing were conducted on the Trobriand Islanders (NB – it’s an Island culture, fish is a staple food): Inland Lagoon based fishing was a very different affair to deep-sea ocean fishing.

Fishing in the calm, inland waters of the lagoon was very much a day to day, relaxed affair – there was a high level of certainty that fish would be caught using the tried and tested method of poisoning. There were no religious ceremonies performed during this type of fishing activity.

However, when men went out to fish in the ocean, beyond the barrier reef, there was no certainty of getting a catch, this depended on the luck of a shoal of fish being present, and there was also the danger of death usually associated with going out to sea. During these times the Trobriand Islanders engaged in religious rituals to try to ensure a favourable outcome.

Malinowski theorised that when people are in control of the situation (or at least feel they are) and can rely on their knowledge and skill to provide predictable results, there is no need for religion.

However, when there is uncertainly and unpredictability and danger, people engage in religious rituals to try to ensure a particular outcome: these were social events which served to reduce anxiety by providing confidence and a feeling of control over the situation.

The similarities and differences between Malinowski and Durkheim….

Like Durkheim, Malinowski theorised that the key role of religion was to reinforce social norms and values and promote social solidarity.

Unlike Durkheim, Malinowski did not see religion as reflecting society as a whole, nor did he see religious rituals as involving the ‘worshipping of society’ – he argued that religion had a more specific function: that of reinforcing solidarity during times of emotional stress that threaten to undermine the stability of society.

 

Sources used to write this post

  • Haralamabos and Holborn: Sociology: Themes and Perspective, seventh edition (unchanged in the eighth!).