Families and Households - Marxism


Families and Households - Marxism 1/4

Economic base = the means of production (owned by the ruling class) and the relations of production (social relations between people involved in the production of goods/services).

Superstructure = all other institutions, controlled by those who also control the economic base; the economy base determined the superstructure, capitalism influences the way the rest of society operates.  

Cushioning effect = the family artificially separates and isolates personal life from other aspects of life, cushioning the effects of capitalism but also perpetuating the system, unable to compensate for the general alienation produced by such a society.

Ideological state apparatus = the family socialises people in a way that justifies inequality and encourages the acceptance of capitalism as fair, natural and unchangeable. The modern nuclear family functions to promote values that reproduce and maintain capitalism, e.g the hierarchy in families teaches children to accept that there will always someone in authority, usually a man, who they must obey, which mirrors the hierarchy of boss-worker in employment

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Families and Households - Marxism 2/4

Marxist sociologists see society as based on an unequal conflict between the capitalist class and the working class. All of society’s institutions help to maintain this class inequality and capitalism, and therefore Marxists see the function of the family is performed only for the benefit of the capitalist system. 

Marxists have identified several functions that they see the family as fulfilling that benefit capitalism but don’t benefit the family.

Inheritance of wealth: the key factor that determines the shape of all social institutions is the means of production, owned and controlled by the capitalist class in modern society, and as the means of production evolved so too does the family.

Marx called the earliest classless society ‘primitive communism’, where there was no private property and all the members of society owned the means of production communally, and at this stage of social development there was no family as such, instead there existed what Engels called a promiscuous horde or a tribe in which there were no restrictions on sexual relationships

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Families and Households - Marxism 3/4

Cushioning effect: according to Zaretsky, the family performs an ideological function by offering a haven form the harsh and exploitative world of capitals, where workers can be themselves and have a private life, however this is mostly an illusion, the family cannot meet its members needs, e.g it is based on the domestic servitude of women. 

Unit of consumption: capitalism exploits the labour of making, making a profit by selling the products of the labourers for more than it pays them to produce commodities, meaning the family therefore plays a role in generating profits of capitalism since it is an important market for the sale of these consumer goods; advertises urge families to keep up with latest trends by consuming the latest product, the media targets children, who use ‘pester power’ to persuade parents to spend more, and children who lack the latest trends are mocked by their peers. 

Socialisation: Marxists argue that the family also performs key ideological functions for capitalism, of which socialisation is one way, teaching children that hierarchy and inequality are inevitable, generally seen in paternal power

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Families and Households - Marxism 4/4


  • Marxists tend to assume that the nuclear family is dominant in capitalist society, ignoring the wild variety of family structures found in society today,
  • Feminists would argue that Marxist emphasis on class and capitalism underestimate the importance of gender inequalities in the family and that the family primarily serves the interests of men, not capitalism,
  • Functionalists argue that Marxists ignore the very real benefits that the family provides and that society is based on value consensus 
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