Families and Households

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  • Created on: 12-12-12 16:26

Functionalist theories of the family

George Murdock identified four functions of the family in his study of 250 societies: 

  1. Sexual function - The family prevents disruption to society by limiting sexuality to monogamous relationships, preventing the conflict that might otherwise result from sexual desire
  2. Reproductive function - The family ensures the reproduction of a new generation vital for the survival of society. 
  3. Economic function - The family acts as an economic unit ensuring the survival of its members by providing food and shelter. 
  4. Educational function - The family provides stable environment in which children can be socialized into the culture of their society
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Functionalist theories of the family

Talcott Parsons studied american society and found that even though the family had lost some functions it retained two 'basic and irreducible functions' 

  • Primary socialization - The family was the only institution in which primary socialization could take place effectively so that children would internalize the norms and values of their society 
  • Stabilization of adult personalities - The stress of the competitive world of work for the husband can be counterbalanced by the warmth and security offered by the nuclear family and within the family adults can act out the childish elements in their personalities. This helps to stabilizzse their personalities. 
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Changing family structure

Parsons believed that the structure of the family changes to fit the needs of different types of society, this is known as the 'fit theory' 

In pre-industrial society the extended family was the norm. Most people worked in agriculture and the extended family worked the land together. The nuclear family of parents and children developed in industrial society where it was necessary because:

  • Industry required a geographically mobile workforce which could move to where new factories were being built. This was diffcult to achieve with large extended families. 
  • A socially mobile workforce was also necessary. In extended families, status was largely ascribed with the eldest males having high status. This could cause problems if younger males had higher achieved status because they had a better job. Nuclear families without extended kin avoided this problem.
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Changing functions of the family

Parsons argued that as society changes, the family loses some of its functions. In pre-industrial times it carried out many functions but in industrial society specialist institutions take over some of these functions known as structural differentiation.

For example, health care and support for the family used to be the responsbility ofthe family, now the welfare state has taken over much of the responsbility. 

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Criticisms of Functionalist theory

  • Some societies don't have traditional families
  • Ingores 'dark side' e.g. domestic violence, sexual abuse
  • Feminists argue men benefit more than women
  • Feminists view this as patriarchal and sexist
  • Ingores evidence of non-dominance of extended family in the pre-industrial era and decline of nuclear family and increasing family diversity
  • Postmodernists argue there are many viable alternatives
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Marxist theory on the family

Zaretsky focused on how the family helped the captialist economy. He argued that the family is one place in society where the proletariat can have power ande control 

  • Role of women is "Housewife" means workers are cared for and healthy. This makes them more productive - great benefit that the captialist class get for free.
  • The family household is a unit with the desire to buy the goods produced by captialist industry e.g cars, washing machines. The family buys the goods for more than they cost to product and the bourgeoisie get the profit. 

Engels said the family had an economic function of keeping wealth within the bourgeoisie by passing it on to the next generation as inheritance. 

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Criticisms of Marxist theory

  • Only focus on benefits to the economy and benefits to working man's boss but ingores other benefits to individuals and society
  • No Marxist explanation for why the family flourishes as an institution in non-captialist or communist societies 
  • Feminists criticize Marxists for neglecting the exploitation of women, postmodernists criticize them for ingoring the variety of family types present in society today and functionalists believe that marxists ingore the beneficial functions of the family for society
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Feminist theories of the family

  • There are several different types of feminist theory, but all of them share certain characteristics in common:
  • There is a fundamental division in society between men and women
  • That women are to some extent exploited by men
  • That society is patriarchal which is used by feminists to indicate that men have more power than women and the interests of men largely shape how societies run 
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Feminist perspectives and the family

Radical feminists - Radical feminists believe that the family plays a major role in maintaining the oppression of women in a patriarchal, male-dominated society.

Greer argues that in marriage today women remain subservient to their husbands. She believes that single women are generally happier than married women and this is reflected in the high number of divorces by women. Greer claims that wives are much more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse than husbands. 

Marxist feminists - Marxist feminists believe that the family benefits the capitalist system and in doing so exploits women

  • Margaret Benston claims that wives are used to product and rear cheap labour for employers. The childcare they provide is unpaid and they also help to maintain their husbands as workers. 
  • Fran Ansley believes that wives suffer as a result of the frustration experienced by their husbands in the alienating work that they do for captialists. 

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Criticisms of Radical and Marxist perspectives

  • Exagerating the exploitation of women within the family
  • Largely failing to acknowledge the increasing equality between men and women
  • Ingoring examples where men are victims of abuse in families
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The contribution of feminism to understanding the

  • It has shown that the family may benefit some members, particularly adult males, more than others
  • It has highlighted the existence of violence, abuse and exploitation within the family
  • Feminists have conducted research into areas of family life which have either been neglected or not been studied before. These include conjugal roles, motherhood, pregnancy and childcare. 
  • It has analyzed the contribution of housework to the economy

Feminism has therefore helped to correct the masculine biads in the previous sociology of the family and to illuminate family life from the perspective of women

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New right perspective on the family

New right theorists do not see choice and liberty as being so important in terms of family life, instead they see traditional nuclear families as the cornerstone of stability in society. They favour traditional families because: 

  • They see them as encouraging self-reliance - family members help each other rather than relying on the state
  • This helps to reduce state expenditure on welfare (for example, lone parents)
  • They see families as encouraging shared moral values and believe they are the best way to pass down morality to children. 

Unlike functionalists, New right thinkers do not believe that the family is a stable institution, able to carry out its functions for individuals and society as a whole. Instead they see it as increasingly unstable, leading to an increase in social problems. 

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Criticisms of New right perspective

  • Rapoports see increasing family diversity as a good thing because it gives people greater freedom to live in the household/family type that best suits them
  • Some sociologists believe that New right thinkers exaggerate the extent to which family life has changed 
  • Feminists believe that the increase in divorce and single parenthood can be beneficial for women escaping violent, abusive or exploitative relationships with men
  • Postmodernists see the declining dominance of nuclear families as part of wider changes in society that are unlikely to be halted by changes in government policies and are in some ways desirable 
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georgia heath


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