Women tend to be more religious than men. Some sociologists have argued that traditional female roles explain why this is and this post examines and evaluates some of these ‘social role theory’ explanations for this trend in gender and religion.
Characteristics of the traditional female gender role (or traditional femininity) include being nurturing, caring, emotional, intuitive, passive and submissive.
Many religions, especially Catholicism and Islam, stress that the ideal woman would take on all of the above characteristics, and willingly take up the role of ‘primary carer’ within the family, supporting husband and children through providing love and support and being a ‘home-maker’.
If women do accept these roles, then religion can act as a source of guidance, comfort and reward, so ‘role theory’ in itself might go some way to explaining the higher level sof religiosity among women.
Women’s traditional role as the main child carers within the family means they are primarily responsible for the primary socialization of children. They might find religion appealing because it offers moral guidance to children ‘from above’, thus making their job as ‘enforcers of behavior’ easier.
The traditional female role also places women as the primary ‘end of life’ carers: caring for the sick and the elderly. This means they experience death more often and more directly than men. Thus they might be more religious because religion offers them a source of comfort or explanation when dealing with death.
Finally, the classical Feminist line on this, as theorized by Simone de Beauvoir, is that religion simply compensates women for their second class status. Women have less status than men, so they turn to religion for comfort (albeit a false comfort which reinforces their second class status).
Limitations of ‘Traditional Gender Role Theory’ in explaining why women are more religious than men
Women’s higher levels of religiosity could be due to different age profiles: women live longer than men, and older people are more religious than younger people.
Also, it doesn’t explain the higher levels of religiosity among women who don’t accept traditional feminine roles. Most members of the New Age Movement are female, and very few accept traditional, hegemonic prescriptions of femininity.
Meet the Natives involves five people from a tropical island visiting a ‘strange land called England’, where they find many of the customs unusual.
At various points throughout the video the ‘natives’ from Oceania have problems understanding British dinner rituals, the food we eat, housework/ the amount of stuff we have and even the concept of wearing clothes.
Videos like this are a great way to introduce the ‘sociological imagination’ to students, because they are shot from the perspective of ‘the outsider’ and remind us that many of our taken for granted activities are actually quite unusual….
Socialisation is learning the norms and values of a society.
Socialisastion refers to the social processes through which new members of society develop awareness of social norms and values and help them achieve a distinct sense of self. It is the process which transforms a helpless infant into a self-aware, knowledgeable person who is skilled in the ways of a society’s culture.
Socialisation is normally discussed in terms of primary socialisation, which is particularly intense and takes place in the early years o life, and secondary socialisation, which continues throughout the life course.
Stages of Socialisation
Socialisation takes place through various agencies, such as the family, peer groups, schools and the media.
The family is the main agent during primary socialisation, but increasingly children attend some kind of nursery schooling from a very young age. It is in the family that children learn the ‘basic norms’ of social interaction – in Britain such norms include learning how to walk, speak, dress in clothes, and a whole range of ‘social manners’, which a taught through the process of positive and negative sanctions, or rewarding good and punishing bad behaviour.
In modern societies, class gender and ethnic differences start to affect the child from a very young age and these influence patterns of socialisation. Where gender is concerned, for example, children unconsciously pick up on a range of gendered stereotypes which inform the actions of their parents, and they typically adjust their behaviour accordingly.
In adulthood, socialisation continues as people learn how to behave in relation to new areas of social life, such as work environments and political beliefs. Mass media and the internet are also seen as playing an increasing role in socialisation, helping to shape opinions, attitudes and behaviour. This is especially the case with the advent of new media, which enable virtual interactions via chatrooms, blogs and so on.
Taken together, agencies of socialisation form a complex range of contrary social influences and opportunities for interaction and it can never be an entirely directed or determined process: humans are self-aware beings capable of forming their own interpretations of the messages with which they are presented.
Criticisms of the Concept of Socialisation
The main criticism of theories of socialisation is that they tend to exaggerate its influence. This is particularly true of functionalism which tended to see individuals as cultural dopes, at the mercy of socialising agencies.
Dennis Wrong (1961) took issue with what he saw as the ‘oversocialised concept of man’ in sociology, arguing that it treats people as mere role-players, simply following scripts.
Today, theories of society and cultural reproduction are much more likely to recognize that individuals are active players and that socialization is a conflict-ridden and emotionally charged affair, and the results of it are much less predictable than functionalist theories suggested in the 1950s.
Socialisation is one of the most fundamental concepts within A-level sociology and should be taught as part of an introduction to sociology.
Functionalists focus on the positive functions of the nuclear family, such as secondary socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities.
Functionalists see the family as one of the essential building blocks for stable societies. They tend to to see the nuclear family as the ideal family for industrial societies and argue that it performs positive functions such as as socialising children and providing emotional security for parents.
There are two main Functionalist theorists of the family: George Peter Murdock and Talcott Parsons.
Murdock argued that the nuclear family was universal and that it performed four essential functions: stabilising the sex drive, reproduction, socialisation of the young and economic production. (Obviously this has been widely criticised!)
Parsons developed the Functional Fit Theory: In pre-industrial society families used to be extended, but with industrialisation families became nuclear because they fitted industrial society better.
The Functionalist Perspective on the Family: Overview
This post covers:
The Functionalist view of society
George Peter Murdock’s theory of the universal nuclear family
Talcott Parsons’ Functional Fit Theory
The possible positive functions of the family today
Evaluations and criticisms of the Functionalist view of the family from other perspectives.
The Functionalist View of Society
Functionalists regard society as a system made up of different parts which depend on each other. Different institutions perform specific functions within a society to keep 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 because 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 – Four essential functions of the nuclear family
George Murdock was an American Anthropologist who looked at 200 different societies and argued that the nuclear family was a universal feature of all human societies. In other words, the nuclear family is in all societies!
Murdock suggested there were ‘four essential functions’ of the nuclear family:
1. Stable satisfaction of the sex drive – within monogamous relationships, which prevents sexual jealousy. 2. The biological reproduction of the next generation – without which society cannot continue. 3. Socialisation of the young – teaching basic norms and values 4. Meeting its members economic needs – producing food and shelter for example.
Criticisms of Murdock
Feminist Sociologists argue that arguing that the family is essential is ideological because traditional family structures typically disadvantage women.
It is feasible that other institutions could perform the functions above.
Anthropological research has shown that there are some cultures which don’t appear to have ‘families’ – the Nayar for example.
Talcott Parsons – Functional Fit Theory
Parsons has a historical perspective on the evolution of the nuclear family. His functional fit theory is that as society changes, the type of family that ‘fits’ that society, and the functions it performs change. Over the last 200 years, society has moved from pre-industrial to industrial – and the main family type has changed from the extended family to the nuclear family. The nuclear family fits the more complex industrial society better, but it performs a reduced number of functions.
The extended family consisted of parents, children, grandparents and aunts and uncles living under one roof, or in a collection of houses very close to eachother. Such a large family unit ‘fitted’ pre-industrial society as the family was entirely responsible for the education of children, producing food and caring for the sick – basically it did everything for all its members.
In contrast to pre-industrial society, in industrial society (from the 1800s in the UK) the isolated “nuclear family” consisting of only parents and children becomees the norm. This type of family ‘fits’ industrial societies because it required a mobile workforce. The extended family was too difficult to move when families needed to move to find work to meet the requirements of a rapidly changing and growing economy. Furthermore, there was also less need for the extended family as more and more functions, such as health and education, gradually came to be carried out by the state.
I really like this brief explanation of Parson’s Functional Fit Theory:
Two 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.
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.
The stabilisation of adult personalities
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’.
Criticisms of Functional Fit Theory
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.
The Positive Functions of the Family: A summary
Functionalists identify a number of positive functions of the nuclear family, below is a summary of some of these and a few more.
The reproduction of the next generation – Functionalists see the nuclear family as the ‘fundamental unit of society’ responsible for carrying that society on by biological reproduction
Related to the above point one of the main functions is primary socialisation – teaching children the basic norms and values of society.
This kind of overlaps with the above, but even during secondary socialisation, the family is expected to help educated children alongside the school.
The family provides psychological security and security, especially for men one might say (as with the ‘warm bath theory’.)
A further positive function is elderly care, with many families still taking on this responsibility.
Murdock argued that monogamous relationships provide for a stable satisfaction of the sex drive – most people today still see committed sexual relationships as best.
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!
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.
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
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.
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