Family theorists

some revision notes on the theorists in which i think are the most important and most relavent,

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  • Murdock (1949) argues that the family carried out four essential functions to meet society’s needs:
    • Stable satisfaction of the sex-drive: with the SAME partner, preventing the social disruption caused by a sexual ‘free-for-all’.
    • Reproduction: without which society could not continue
    • Socialisation of the young: into society’s shared norms and values
    • 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 explotation 
  • Feminists: see the family as oppressive to women and as only serving the needs of men.
  • Marxists: believe that it meets the needs of the Bourgeoisie and not the members of the family or the whole of society. 
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intro theorist perspectives

Functionalist views: the importance of the nuclear family, the universality of the family, changing functions, how the nuclear family ‘fits’ modern society.
Marxist views: the family as part of the ideological state apparatus, as an agent of social control.
Feminist views: patriarchy; liberal, radical and Marxist feminism.

consensus/positive view on family

Functionalist theories: the family performs positive functions for individuals and society

New Right theories: the family is the cornerstone of society, but it is under threat

conflict/critical view on family

Marxist theories: the family provides important functions for capitalism

Feminist theories: the family reinforces gender inequality and patriarchy

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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:
    • The Nuclear Family: two, monogamously married parents with their dependent children.
    • 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.
    • NUCLEAR: fits the needs of the industrial society.
    • EXTENDED: fits the needs of the pre-industrial family. 
    • The emerging industrial society had different needs to the existent pre-industrial society, so the family had to adapt. 
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parsons (continued)

  • Parsons believes that modern, industrial society has two essential needs:
    • 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.
    • A SOCIALLY MOBILE WORKFORCE: Now that status is no longer ASCRIBED (fixed at birth by social and financial background), but rather ACHIEVED through hard work and ability, Parson argues that the nuclear family is better equipped to meet the needs of the industrial society. In an extended family, grown up sons still live at home with their fathers, the father will have his ASCRIBED status as head of the household, but at work his son may have a higher ACHIEVED status than his father, causing tensions at home. The simplest way around this, Parsons argues, is for the son to move out when he marries, start his own nuclear family and therefore not have an overriding duty towards those members of his family. 
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Loss of functions

  • The pre-industrial family was multi-functional – it was both a system of PRODUCTION and of CONSUMPTION, it was self-sufficient.
  • However, Parsons posits that when society industrialises, the family not only changes its structure, but loses many of its functions as well.
  • For example – the family ceases to be a unit of production as work moves outside to the factories and the family becomes purely a unit of consumption, and loses many of its other functions to the education system and health service.
  • In Parson’s view, the modern nuclear family has come to specialise in the performance of two ‘irreducible’ functions:
    • PRIMARY SOCIALISATION OF CHILDREN: to equip them with basic skills and society’s values – this enables them to cope with others and integrate into society.
    • STABILISATION OF ADULT PERSONALITIES: the family is where adults can relax and release their tensions – this means that they can return to work refreshed and ready to meet its demands.
  • This means it is functional for the efficiency of the economy.  
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Marxist perspective

  • While the Functionalists believe society as based on a value consensus, Marxists see CAPITALIST SOCIETY as based on unequal conflict between two social classes:
    • The BOURGEOISIE: those who own the MEANS OF PRODUCTION
    • The PROLETARIAT: whose labour is exploited by is EXPLOITED  by the Bourgeoisie for profit.
  • Marxists see all of society’s INSTITUTIONS (education, the media, religion, and especially the family) as tools with which to maintain their social control through CLASS INEQUALITY and CAPITALISM.
  • For Marxists, the functions of the family are carried out exclusively for the profit of the capitalist system.

CONTRAST: Functionalism: sociologists like Parsons believe that the functions of the family benefit society as a whole and the individual members of the family

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Marxists (continued)

  • Marxists have identified several functions of the family which they believe are fulfilling for capitalism:
    • 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. In Engles' view, monogamy became necessary because of the inheritance of private property – men had to be sure of the paternity of their sons to ensure that they had a legitimate heir to inherit their estate.
    • IDEOLOGICAL FUNCTIONS: Marxists argue that the family performs key hegemonic (ideological) functions to maintain the control of the Ruling Class. Families socialise children into the Values, Norms and Beliefs of the Bourgeoisie, so that they grow up having internalised them, which means that they wont question the oppression of the working class. One way the family does this is to teach children that hierarchy and patriarchy are inevitable – they are taught this by learning to accept that someone always has to be in charge and that someone is usually a man. This way they will grow up to accept orders from their capitalist employers. Zaretsky (1976) claims that the family can also provide a 'haven' from the harshness of the outside world, where workers can be themselves and have a private life away from capitalism. However, Zaretsky states that this is largely not true because the family cannot meet all members' needs – the family is based upon the domestic servitude of women
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    • A UNIT OF CONSUMPTION: Because Capitalism exploits the labour of the workers, the family plays an important ECONOMIC role by generating profits by providing a market for the sale of consumer goods.
      • Advertisers encourage families to 'keep up with' each other by buying the new products.
      • The media target children who then use 'pester power' to get their parents to buy something.
      • Children mock and stigmatise others that don't have all the latest gadgets and clothes.
  • Marxists see the family as performing several functions that maintain capitalism within society.
  • While Marxists agree that these functions benefit capitalism, they do no benefit members of the family
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Criticisms of the marxist perspective

Criticisms of the Marxist perspective:


·         MARXISTS tend to assume that the nuclear family is dominant in capitalist societies – ignores the increasing variety of family structures.

·         FEMINISTS argue that marxism's focus on social class underplays the importance of gender and gender-inequalities within the family structure (THAT'S THEIR CRITICISM OF EVERYTHING). In their view, the family serves the interests of men rather than capitalism as a whole.

·         Conversely, FUNCTIONALISTS argue that Marxism overlooks the very real BENEFITS of the family, such as intimacy and support. 

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Feminist perspective

The Feminist Perspective:


·         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.

·         Feminism, however, is a broad term and covers four main branches:





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Liberal feminists

Liberal Feminists:


·         Liberal Feminists are concerned with campaigning for equality – they want to end sex-discrimination and achieve equal rights and opportunities for both genders:

     they argue that the oppression of women is slowly being slowly overcome by changing attitudes to women and changes in the law such as the Sex Discrimination Act (1975), which outlaws discrimination in employment.

     They also believe that we are steadily progressing towards greater equality, but that it is dependent upon further reforms and changes in attitude and socialisation of both sexes.

·         With regards to the family, their view is similar to the MARCH OF PROGRESS view, and though they do not yet believe that total gender equality has been achieved, they argue that it is a gradual process.

·         For example – some studies suggest that men are beginning to do more domestic labour and parents are socialising their children into more equal gender-roles, and have similar aspirations for them.

·         However, other feminist groups criticise the liberal feminists because they fail to challenge the underlying causes of women's oppression and for believing that changes in legislation can bring about equality.  

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Marxist feminism

Marxist Feminism:

   MARXIST FEMINISTS argue that women's opression comes mainly from capitalism, not men. Women's oppression performs several functions for the capitalist society:

     Reproduction of the Work Force: through upaid domestic labour, socialising the next generation and maintaining the current one.

     Absorbing Anger: Ansley (1972) describes women as 'the takers of ****' – they soak up the frustration their husbands feel at the alienation and exploitation suffered at work. For Marxists, this explains male domestic violence against women.

     Provide a 'reserve army': that can be taken on when more workers are required, and when they are no longer required they can be sent back to their primary role as unpaid domestic labour.

·         Marxist Feminists argue that the family must be abolished with capitalist society in the socialist revolution. 

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Radical feminism

Radical Feminism:


·         RADICAL FEMINISTS argue that all societies are founded on patriarchy. (If you don't know what that is by now you're doing the wrong A Level).

·         For Radical Feminists, the key division within society is between men and women:

     Men are the Enemy: they are the source of women's oppression and exploitation.

     The Family and Marriage are KEY INSTITUTIONS: in patriarchal society, men benefit from women's unpaid domestic labour and sexual services, and dominate women through actual or threatened domestic and sexual violence.

·         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.

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radical feminism continued

·         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.

·         However, liberal feminists like Somerville (2000) argue that radical feminists fail to recognise that the position of women has actually advanced quite far – with better access to divorce, better job opportunities, birth control, and marriage being OPTIONAL.

·         Somerville also argues that separatism is unlikely to happen due to the biological imperative to reproduce.

·         However, Somerville does accept that men and women are not yet ENTIRELY equal, she argues that there is a need for 'family friendly' policies, such as flexible working hours, to promote equality between partners.

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difference feminism

Difference Feminism:

·         Difference feminists are different to the other three kinds, because they do not assume that all women lead the same kind of life, rather that there are DIFFERENCES in the experiences of women.

·         They argue that lesbian and heterosexual women, white women and black women, middle-class and working-class women all have very different experiences of life and of the family to one another.

·         For example – black feminists argue that by reading the family as the sole cause of female oppression, white feminists neglect to see racial oppression.

·         Conversely, black feminists tend to view the black family as a source of support and resistance against racism.

·         However, other feminists argue that this approach does not recognise that despite obvious differences, the experiences of oppression are all very similar – compared to men, women face  a much greater risk of domestic violence, sexual assault, low pay and more.

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criticims on feminist perspective


·         Sociologists argue that all three of these perspectives suffer from two key weaknesses:

     They ALL assume that the traditional nuclear family is the dominant family type: this ignores the increasing diversity of the family and while the nuclear family is still dominant, it is by no means the only set up. Compared with 40 years ago, more people live in different family set ups such as lone parent families and reconstructed step families and so on.

     They are all STRUCTURAL theories: they assume tha the families and their members are just passive puppets to be manipulated by society to carry out certain, designated functions. E.G – to provide the economy with a mobile labour force, or to serve the needs of capitalism or of men.

·         Though sociologists influenced by postmodern theory reject this – they argue that structural theories ignore the element of choice we have in creating our family relationships , and the diversity found in today's family types reflects this.

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