Functionalism and the Family

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Zareena Harris
Cover Work
Sociology ­ Cover Work
Functionalism and the Family
To functionalists the family is at the heart of society. Murdock (1949) claimed that the nuclear
family is so useful to society that it is inevitable and universal (appearing everywhere)
The family is universal because it fulfils the following Essential Functions for Society
Sexual: It contains a controlled outlet for sexual gratification which could otherwise
lead to conflict and jealousies
Reproductive: It allows adults to know the biological parents of children, therefore
avoiding incest and delineating lines of descent
Economic: It functions as a productive and consumption unit, thus ensuring the
survival of the family members
Educational: It passes on knowledge and skills from one generation to the next
Parsons (1902-79): There are two basic Irreducible Functions of the Family
1. Primary Socialisation
It is through the family that the individual is socialised into the norms of society and
given the basic individual personality. The complexity of these tasks requires
intensive teaching in a secure, individualised environment
2. Stabilisation of Adult Personalities
As adults, the place where emotional security is provided is the home, with the
family. It is the place which provides the emotional `harbour' against the stresses and
anonymity of industrial society.
Parsons `Functional Fit' Theory
The family meets other need as well as the ones identified by Murdock. For example it may perform
welfare, military, political or religious functions. In the view of Parsons (1955), the functions that the
family performs will depend on the kind of society in which it is found.
Parsons distinguishes between two kinds of family structure:
The nuclear family of just parents and dependent children
The extended family of three generations living under one roof
According to Parsons, there are two basic types of society- modern industrial society and traditional
pre-industrial society. He argues that the nuclear family fits the needs of industrial society and is the
dominant family type in that society, while the extended family fits the needs of pre-industrial
Parsons sees industrial society as having two essential needs:
1. A geographically mobile workforce
Parsons argues that it is easier for the compact two-generation nuclear family, with just
dependent children, to move, than for the three-generation extended family. The nuclear

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Zareena Harris
Cover Work
family is better fitted to the need that modern industry has for a geographically mobile
2. A socially mobile workforce
In modern society, an individual's status is achieved by their own efforts and ability, not
ascribed (fixed at birth) by their social and family background, and this makes social mobility
possible. For example, the son of a labourer can become a doctor or lawyer through ability
and hard work.…read more


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