Functionalists believe that society is based on a shared value consensus; this is a set of shared norms and values into which society socialises its members. This enables society to work harmoniously and able to meet its needs and goals. Functionalists believe that the family is regarded as a basic building block of society. George Murdoch (1949) argues that the family performs four essential functions to meet the needs of society and its members. These functions are; economic needs, reproduction, primary socialisation and sex.
He believes that those needs can only be achieved within a nuclear family. However, some sociologists would argue that these needs can be met in other ways than within the family. For example, other family types such as an extended family or institutions such as the Kibbutz in Israel can be used for primary socialisation and economic security. Other needs such as reproduction and sex can also be met by sperm donors or prostitution.
Marxist and Feminist sociologists have criticised Murdoch’s theory.
They say that Functionalism ignores conflict and exploitation within society. Feminists see the family as being patriarchal and serving the needs of men and Marxists see the family as meeting the needs of capitalism and not the needs of the family members. According to Parsons there are two types of society; pre and post industrial. Parsons argues that when Britain began to industrialise from the 18th century onwards then the extended family became redundant and made way for the nuclear family. Parsons believes that this change happened because the needs of the society changed, he identified that post-industrial societies have two basic needs. First people had to be geographically mobile, as in a modern society, industries are constantly springing up in one area and declining in another. Therefore people had to be able to move to where the work was available. This mobility would be easier for the nuclear family than the extended family. Secondly there was a real need for a socially mobile workforce.
The pre-industrial family had many functions but due to the industrial revolution these functions have now changed into just two. The first is the primary socialisation of children and the second function is stabilising adult personalities. However, not everyone accepts the functionalist view of the family and its role. According to Young and Wilmot (1973) the extended family was not the dominant family type before the industrial revolution. They also claim that the rise of the nuclear family was due to the march of progress; better living standards, improved housing, the welfare state and the changing position of women. Laslett (1972) said that the short life expectancy resulted in few extended families before the industrialisation. Anderson (1980) also criticises Parsons and claims that working class families turned to extended families due to illness, cost and childcare. Marxists argue that the family is shaped by those who own the means of production (bourgeoisie). Marxists argue that the family performs ideological functions that reinforce inequality between the classes and persuades people to accept the capitalist system as a fair system. The family socialises children into thinking the inequality and the hierarchy of society are fair.
However, Marxists tend to assume that the nuclear family is the most dominant family type in society and they ignore other types of family. Feminists are critical of the Marxist view of the family, believing that they place too much emphasis on class conflict and ignore gender inequalities. Also Functionalists also claim that Marxists and Feminists ignore the functions that a family plays, such as support and intimacy. Today in Britain there are a diverse range of family types, yet the Marxist and Feminist approaches assume that families and their members are manipulated in order to perform certain functions, such as provide a workforce or oppress a gender. A final criticism of the structuralist theories is from interpretivist sociologists who claim that we are free to make our own choice and may choose not to become a family unit. Couples may choose not to have children, which is resulting in family types becoming increasingly diverse.
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