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Examine sociological views on the functions of the family.
The family is a unique part of society, which is found in every country and culture in the world.
The forms it takes on vary so greatly across different societies, that many say it is impossible to
define the family. However, some sociologists believe there are functions that the family performs,
or should perform, regardless of the culture, or the composition of the individual family. They may
believe that these functions are performed equally well by every family type or that only the nuclear
family can fulfil them properly. Some views, such as those of feminists, may be that the family only
fulfils negative functions, but most sociologists agree that it is an important part of society.
Functionalists see society as being like a living organism, made up of many different parts which
all perform particular functions. Each institution within society, such as the family, contributes to the
maintenance of the system as a whole as well as benefiting its members. In 1949, Murdock analysed
250 societies across the world, and came up with four basic functions, which he said all families in all
societies performed. The first function is the sexual function, meaning that sex outside of marriage
is limited in some way, which stabilises the society and can prevent conflict. Secondly, the family
fulfils the reproductive function, as it is the main context for children to born and brought up. This is
vital for society to continue. The family also fulfils an economic function, either as a unit of
production or consumption. In some societies most families are producers in primary industries, but in
Western societies, families function most as consumers, which help to uphold the economy. The final
function fulfilled by the family according to Murdock is education. The family is the main place where
children are socialised and taught the norms and values of the society in which they live. It is
important that these are taught to every generation to keep society functioning properly and to
avoid conflicts. Murdock said that there are other social institutions which fulfil each of these
functions, but the nuclear family is unique in the contribution it makes to society. He said that the
nuclear family is essential to society because of the functions it performs, and also essential to its
individual members. It serves both at the same time, and cannot serve one without serving the other.
However, Murdock's views have been criticised for not considering how the functions of the family
which he described could be fulfilled by other institutions, which would mean the nuclear family was
not essential as he suggests. Also, he claimed that the nuclear family is universal, whilst only
studying 250 societies. Other sociologists argue that the functions Murdock outlined can be
performed equally well in other family structures, such as reconstituted families, whereas he insisted
that the nuclear family had no adequate substitute. D H Morgan also said that Murdock didn't show
an accurate view of family life, and was too positive about the nuclear family in terms of division of
labour and marriage relationships.
Parsons (1959) focussed also on the nuclear family, looking at its functions in industrial society.
He said it has become increasingly specialised, as some of the former functions are no longer
performed by the family and have been taken on by other institutions. It does, he argues, still have
two basic and unique functions, which are no less important and cannot be reduced. The first of
these is the primary socialisation of children, which takes place in the early years of their childhood.
It involves internalising society's culture which is essential, because if the shared values and norms
of society are not known to children, society will cease to exist. It also involves structuring the child's
personality to include these norms and values, because if this does not happen, socialisation cannot
work effectively. The second function that Parson's claims the nuclear family still fulfils is the
stabilisation of adult personalities. Both marital and parental roles within a nuclear family can help to
stabilise personality and this is needed to protect society from unstable personalities. His view has
been criticised, particularly by Cheal who is sceptical of the modernist view of the family. He says
that society has not progressed to the extent that Parsons claims, because he ignores the
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For instance, although women are becoming more equal in the work
place, which would suggest the progression of society, he ignores the fact that domestic labour is
still largely done by women. This, it could be argued, shows that women are in fact becoming less
equal as they are now expected to do more work for the family than men, and so would not work with
of a modern, adapted nuclear family.…read more
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is the women who do much of the work, but men receive the benefits of it. Marxist feminists, such as
Benston, take the view that this unpaid domestic labour is vital to upholding capitalism because
women produce and socialise the next generation of workers at no cost to the capitalist ruling class.
According to feminists, women are also forced into emotional labour within the family.…read more
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They point at feminism, greater sexual freedom, and tolerance of homosexuality
as other causes of nuclear family breakdown, which all need to be tackled to improve society and
allow the family to improve its socialisation of children. This leads to the dependency of lone
mothers on the state welfare benefits, which means they do not feel the need to work and contribute
to society, or to stay in a relationship the sake of their children.…read more