Topic 3: The Functions of the Family

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Topic 3 ­ THE FUNCTIONS OF THE FAMILY
The Functionalist Perspective:
Functionalists believe that society works by way of a VALUE CONSENSUS wherein everyone
cooperates and has shared goals for the good of the society.
Within this society, there are different INSTITUTIONS (such as kinship, education,
economic, media) which all work together to maintain society's harmony > Organic
Analogy.
The family is part of the KINSHIP SYSTEM/INSTITUTION and carries out vital functions within
society, just like the heart/lungs/brain carry out vital functions within the body to keep it
running properly (This is the OA).
Murdock (1949) argues that the family carried out four essential functions to meet
society's needs:
o Stable satisfaction of the sex-drive: with the SAME partner, preventing the social
disruption caused by a sexual `free-for-all'.
o Reproduction: without which society could not continue
o Socialisation of the young: into society's shared norms and values
o Meeting members' economic needs: such as food and shelter.
Criticisms of Murdock:
Murdock ACCEPTS that there are other institutions that could perform all of these
functions; however he argues that the NUCLEAR FAMILY is UNIVERSAL because of its
PRACTICALITY ­ it can carry out all four functions at once.
While other sociologists agree that these are important functions, it is argued that
NON-NUCLEAR family structures could carry them out equally well if not better.
CONFLICT SOCIOLOGISTS (Marxists and Feminists) reject Murdock's `rose-tinting' of the
family and his view that that it meets all the needs of the family members.
They argue that it ignores conflict and exploitation:
o Feminists: see the family as oppressive to women and as only serving the needs of
men.
o Marxists: believe that it meets the needs of the Bourgeoisie and not the members
of the family or the whole of society.
Parsons' `Functional Fit' Theory:
Parsons (1955) believed that the functions of the family depended on the kind of society it
was in.
Parsons distinguishes between two different types of family:
o The Nuclear Family: two, monogamously married parents with their dependent
children.
o The Extended Family: three generations living under one roof.
Parsons argues that each type of family will manifest itself when it suits the family's
situation the best.
According to Parsons, there are two basic society types: MODERN INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY
and TRADITIONAL PRE-INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY.
Parsons believes that around the 18th Century, when British society began to
INDUSTRIALISE, the extended family began to give way to the nuclear family.
o NUCLEAR: fits the needs of the industrial society.
o EXTENDED: fits the needs of the pre-industrial family.
The emerging industrial society had different needs to the existent pre-industrial society,

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Parsons believes that modern, industrial society has two essential needs:
o A GEOGRAPHICALLY MOBILE WORKFORCE: Previously, people spent their whole
lives living and working on the same farm, but now industries spring up and decline
in different parts of the country (or world) so people are required to move where
the jobs are. Parsons argues that it is easier for the compact nuclear family to move
than it is for the extended family to.…read more

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INHERITANCE OF PROPERY: Marx called the earliest, classless society 'primitive
communism' ­ there was no private property and all members owned the Means of
Production. There was no family, but what ENGLES called the 'promiscuous horde' in
which there were no restrictions on sexual relationships. However, as society's
wealth began to increase, a class of men were able to secure total ownership of all
the Means of Production. This change lead to the monogamous nuclear family.…read more

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FEMINISTS argue that the family is a tool used by powerful men in order to oppress
women and maintain a patriarchy.
They do not regard gender-inequalities as natural or unavoidable, but as a social construct.…read more

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Radical Feminists argue that, to be free from patriarchal control is to abolish the family. The
only way to do this is through SEPARATISM ­ women must organise themselves to live
independently of men.
Many Radical Feminists argue for 'political lesbianism' ­ the idea that in heterosexual
relationships, women are 'sleeping with the enemy' and can only be equal in lesbian
relationships.
Greer (2000) argues for all female, 'matrilocal' households as an alternative to the
heterosexual, nuclear family.…read more

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