Functionalist View on Family Essay
Outline and evaluate the functionalist view of the role of the family in society. 33 marks – 25 minutes. A family is a kinship – people related by blood or marriage. Functionalism is a macro theory which means it looks at a wider sociological view. It focuses on the importance of the nuclear family (mother and father married with children), the universality of the family, changing roles and how the nuclear family “fits” into modern society. The theory of “fit” is argued by Parsons, where he believes that the dominant structure of the family best suits the needs of the economy at the time.
This means that the nuclear family “fits” into an industrial economy because they are geographically mobile and not reliant on wider kin. By this Parsons means that family members can easily move to new centres of production. Parson concludes that only the nuclear family could provide the achievement orientated 2quired by modern economies. However according to Wilmott and Young, the pre-industrial family tended to be nuclear, not extended as claimed by Parsons with parents and children working together in cottage industries such as weaving.
They also argue that the hardship of these early industrialised periods gave rise to the mother centred working class extended family, based on ties between mothers and their married daughters who relied on each other for financial, practical and emotional support. Similarly, Hareven concludes that the extended family, not the nuclear family as Parsons said, was the structure best equipped to meet the needs of early industrial society. Her research showed how extended migrant families in America in the 19th Century acted as a source of support and mutual aid, as well as promoting geographical mobility by helping newcomers to find work.
This outlines the functionalist view of the role of family in society and is evaluated by the views of other sociologists. Functionalist theories are based on how the nuclear family performs positive function for individuals and society which is why functionalist sociologists paint a harmonious picture of the family functioning with other institutions to serve the needs of society and its members. This is agreed by Murdock as he argues that the family is a universal institution (it exists everywhere) which is supported by when he studied 250 societies and found some sort of family in all of them.
This suggests that families are necessary in some way either for societies to survive or for individual well-being. However, Murdock views of the family is somewhat flawed due to the different type of families that exist in today’s society such as single parent, beanpole and extended families. Also, Murdock believes that families perform four main functions – this theory is based on organic analogy which means family and its members function to keep society alive.
One of the functions of family in which Murdock believes in is that family is there for stable satisfaction of the sex drive with the same partner to prevent the social disruption caused by sexual “free to all”. Another function in his theory is that family is there to reproduce the next generation because without this society will not be able to continue. Also, family are there to socialise the young by teaching the norms and values of society and they are there to provide economic needs such as shelter and food. This outlines and evaluates functionalist view of the role of the family in society.
On the other hand, other sociologists have criticised Murdock’s functionalist approach because Murdock’s view on the universality of the family is too narrow because it excludes many family forms. For example the single parent family is a distinct and viable family type as O’ Donnell states “one in five families with dependant children in Britain in 1994 was headed by a single parent”. This is shown by Bourne who says that single parent family are the most common in western society and that in 1996 11 per sent of people in Britain lived in this type of family- today it has doubled.
Also, as society became more industrialised traditional roles were increasingly taken over by the state. For example, children had to go to school rather than being taught by family members; therefore the family has lost its educational function. In response to Murdock’s theory, Parson says that in modern industrial societies the role of the family has become specialised. Parson believes that every family in every society has two “basic and irreducible” functions.
For instance, primary socialisation – passing on of norms and values and appropriate gender roles, girls would be taught how to behave feminine and boys would be taught how to portray themselves as masculine. This is where the mother would provide an instrumental and expressive role and the father would be the breadwinner of the family. During this period the child learns the basic elements of the culture into which she/he has been born into. However, Parsons view of the socialisation process is criticised for being too deterministic, with children being pumped full of culture and their personalities being moulded by all powerful adults.
Parson ignores the possibility of socialisation being a two way process in which roles are negotiated or that attempts of socialisation can be resisted by children. The second basic and irreducible function of the role of family in society is to provide stabilisation of adult personalities- being supportive to adult family members. The family gives the individual adult a “safety waive”, a place where she/he can escape the stresses and strain of the society and relax, this is known as the “warn bath” theory.
However, a Marxist sociologist Zaretsky argues that the family only provides this emotional support in order to encourage its members to continue to work another day under the harsh realities of Capitalism. Therefore, the family is a servant of a capitalist state which looks after the needs of exploited workers at no cost to employers. Some sociologists argue against Murdock and Parsons theories, by saying that many of the functions they have identified can be provided by other sources and institutions and individuals do not require the family for financial support which means families can be dysfunctional.
Marxists and feminists reject Murdock’s “rose-tinted” consensus view that family meets the needs of both its members and society. They argue that functionalism neglects conflict, exploitation and the dark side of the family where many families are in places of disruption. Functionalists stress the positive aspects of the family same as how the New Right sociologists believe that family is the cornerstone of society. Whereas, Marxist views on family are that it is a part of the ideological state apparatus as an agent of social control and it rovides important functions for capitalism. Another view which differs from functionalism is the feminist view, they think family reinforce inequality and patriarchy. Many sociologists have studied ‘the dark side of family’ where members feel abused and where they are unable to live the life they desire. For example, feminists see the family as serving the needs of men and oppressing women. Similarly, Marxists argue that it meets the needs of capitalism, not its members or society. This outlines and evaluates the functionalist view of the role of family in society.
To conclude, functionalist analyses of the nuclear family tend to be based on the middle class and American versions of family and they consequently neglect other influences such as ethnicity, social class or religion. For example, Parsons does not consider the fact that wealth or poverty may determine whether women stay at home to look at children or not. Since parsons wrote his theory in the 1950’s, many western societies in the UK have now become multicultural and more ethnicities, sub cultures and religions are present due to migration which is why Parsons view of the role of the family in society is not valid in the contemporary UK.