George Murdock

Considered the four basic functions of the family to be - 

  • sexual - marriage provides an opportunity for the socially controlled expression of the sex drive.
  • reproductive - the family provides stability for the reproduction and upbringing of the children who will form the next generation
  • socialisation - the family is the most important agent of primary socialisation - ensures children are brought up with the appropriate value consensus so they can fit into society with the appropriate cultural understanding to allow social order to remain.
  • economic - the family provides the necessary shelter and other requirements such as food, clothing and warmth that allow members of society to thrive

"the nuclear family exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every society" 

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Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons argues there are two basic and irreducible functions common to all families. 

  • socialisation- involves learning to behave in an acceptable way in society. Primary socialisation occurs within the family as the parents are the leading agents of primary socialisation - this means children will understand the value consensus of society and therefore can fit in and keep social order the same. 
  • stabilisation of adult personalities - emotional security and sexual expression of the adults within the family that allows them to express their desires in a safe, committed and loving relationship. This means warmth, emotional support and security exist within the family and the family is a safe haven to the outside world. 
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The isolated nuclear family

In modern, capitalist society, the nuclear family has become isolated from wider kinship networks. 

Parsons believes this is because the family forms less functions in this day and age. In previous years, the family would - 

  • care for the elderly relatives of the family. this is no longer required as nursing homes exist, as does the  NHS which provides treatment for the elderly.
  • children would be educated in the family. schools now exist which do this instead of the nuclear family, with education being compulsory and free for all. Institutions now exist.

The nuclear family is also geographically mobile as members of the family no longer have to be tied down to one area - they can go elsewhere for work. 

Similarly, social mobility means the second generations of the nuclear family can actually change their social standing and become part of a different class to their parents. 

The role of women within the nuclear family is functional - she performs the essential role of caregiver within the family. When the family is isolated, the family rally around having only each other. 

The isolated nuclear family continues to perform the two irreducible functions of socialisation and stabilisation, whilst non-essential tasks are taken over by outside agencies.


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Criticisms of the functionalist view

  • It only argues the positive sides of the family and does not account for the ways in which the family has negative impacts upon society. It assumes the family benefits everyone. 
  • Leech & Laing - the family can be a source of misery and even mental illness - very different to the 'haven' it claims to create.
  • Feminists such as Anne Oakley believe the family is actually a source of oppression for the women as the nuclear family believes they should stay at home as opposed to getting a job and working for themselves. The family is a source of domestic violence for many women.
  • Sussman & Burchinal - the weight of evidence indicates the American nuclear family is actually far from isolated. 
  • Functionalists consider the nuclear family to be the norm and do not recognise family diversity.
  • Leach & Cooper - the isolated nuclear family has actually become so isolated that it is now a very destructive institution that teaches blind obedience and supresses individuality.
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Organic analogy


  • every part of the body has a function in order to keep it alive and healthy
  • the human body grows and develops
  • all of the parts of the body link together in one big system
  • the body fights disease


  • every part of society helps to keep society going - family helps bring up the next generation
  • society grows and develops with new ideas
  • all parts of society work together and depend on each other - interdependent
  • society has mechanisms to deal with problems i.e police and legal system
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