Relationship of the family to social structure and social change

  • Created by: Joanna R
  • Created on: 21-03-17 09:30

Functionalist view

Murdock - 4 functions

Parsons - 2 functions

Parsons - theory of fit


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Family exists everywhere and performs 4 major functions:

1) Stable satisfaction of sex drive

2) Reproduction of next generation

3) Socialisation of the young

4) Meeting its members' economic needs


Marxists and feminists both reject his 'rose-tinted' consensus view that the family meets the needs of both wider society and all members of the family.

They argue that functionalism neglects conflict and exploitation (feminists - oppressing women) (Marxists - meets the needs of capitalism)

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Parsons (1)

Every family in every society has 2 basic and irreducible functions:

1) Primary socialisation of children

2) Stabilisation of adult personalities

Primary socialisation takes place in early years of childhood and they learn basic elements of the culture they live in.

Stabilisation of adult personalities is a safety valve where an individual adult can escape the stresses of the world and feel emotionally secure.


Too deterministic - assumes that children's personalities are moulded by adults. Ignores that socialisation can be a two-way process, where roles are negotiated or resisted.

Zaretsky (Marxist) - the family only provides emotional support in order to encourage its members to work another day under capitalism.

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Parsons (2)

Theory of 'fit'

The dominant structure of the family best suits the needs of the economy at that time. Nuclear families 'fit' industrialised economies because they are geographically mobile (can move easily) and socially mobile (don’t rely on extended relatives). Only the nuclear family can provide the achievement-orientated and geographically mobile workforce required by modern economies.


Willmott and Young - pre-industrialised families tended to be nuclear as parents and children worked together in cottage industries. The hardship of the early industrialised period gave rise to the mother-centred working class extended family because of the relationships between mothers and their married daughters; they relied on each other for financial, practical and emotional support.

Tamara Hareven - extended family was the best structure to meet the needs of early industrial society. Her research showed how extended migrant families in the 19th century acted as a source of support and mutual aid by helping newcomers to find work.

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Overall evaluation of functionalist view

Functionalists analysis' of the nuclear family tend to be based on middle class American families. They neglect influences such as ethnicity, social class and religion. For example, Parsons does not consider the fact that poverty may determine whether a woman stays at home to look after her children or not.

Parsons' theory was written in the 1950's and since then, in Western societies; they have become multicultural with different religious and ethnic differences. Meaning his theory is no longer relevant in today's society.

Feminists - ignore the 'dark side' of the family - husband and wife conflicts, male dominance, child abuse etc. They do not give enough attention to the dysfunctions of the family.

Interpretivists - neglect the meaning families have for individuals and how family members interpret family relationships.

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Marxist view



Althusser and Poulantzas


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Origin of the family

The need for family arose when societies started to value private property. Fathers needed to know who their offspring were in order to pass property down the family line. Hence monogamy rose and a family was created. Therefore, the family serves the interests of the economy.


Modern research shows that Engels' interpretation is historically inaccurate. Monogamous marriage and nuclear families are found in hunter-gatherer groups. Humans have spent the vast majority of their existence as hunter-gatherers therefore the likelihood that nuclear families emerged as a result of private property is low.

Functionalists reject this view as they believe the family plays an important role in socialising the young and stabilising adult personalities.

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How the family benefits capitalism

The family serves capitalism by offering emotional security to its members by encouraging them to work another day under capitalism.


Liberal feminist - he exaggerates the importance of the family as a refuge from life in capitalist society. He underestimates the extent of cruelty, violence and incest within families. He ignores the fact that most working-class women in the early stages of capitalism had to take on paid work in order for the family to survive.

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Althusser and Poulantzas

Ideological role of the family

Family can be seen as serving the functions of an ideological state apparatus by socialising both pro-capitalist ideology and familiar ideology in order to maintain family patterns.

For example; the family socialises its members into accepting gender roles.


Feminists - they ignore the fact that family ideology supports patriarchy as it suggests that men and women should have different roles in the family and society.

Functionalists - reject this view that the family socialises children into capitalist ideology. The family enables children to internalise the culture of society to enable them to become effective functioning adults.

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Overall evaluation of marxist view

Feminists - Marxists underestimate the importance of gender inequalities within the family. The family serves the interests of men rather than capitalism.

Functionalists - Marxists ignore the very real benefits that the family provides for its members; mutual support and intimacy.

Interpretivist - Marxists tend to neglect the meanings families have for individuals and how family members interpret family relationships. For example, they ignore that some females enjoy motherhood as it is fulfilling and a rewarding experience.

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Marxist feminist

The nuclear family meets the needs of capitalism for the reproduction and maintenance of class and patriarchal inequality. It benefits the powerful at the expense of the working class and women.

Women serve 3 functions for capitalism: 1) Women reproduce the labour force. 2) Women absorb anger. 3) Women are a reserve army of labour.

Margaret Benston - the nuclear family provides the basic commodity required by capitalism. Family maintains the present workforce's physical and emotional fitness through the wife’s domestic labour. 


Difference feminists would criticise Marxist feminists for assuming that all women are exploited equally under capitalism.

Black feminists would argue that Marxist feminists ignore black and Asian women's experience of racism which is not faced by white women.

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Radical feminist

Kate Millett - modern societies and families are characterised by patriarchy. The family is the root of all women's oppression and should be abolished. The only way to do this is through separatism.

Diana Gittens - age patriarchy is a reason for adult domination of children; which may take the form of violence against both children and women.

Delphy and Leonard - family is a patriarchal institution in which women do most of the work but men get most of the benefit.

Evaluation: Kate Millett is outdated as she fails to consider recent trends such as the feminisation of the work force and women's use of divorce laws. Jenny Somerville (a liberal feminist) argues that separatism is unlikely to work because of heterosexual attraction.

Diana Gittens' model fails to consider that females may be exercising rational choices in choosing domestic roles.

Functionalists argue that radical feminists ignore the very real benefits that the family provides for its members.

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Liberal feminist

Full gender equality in the family has not yet been achieved but there has been some gradual progress.

There is research that suggests men are doing more domestic labour and that parents now socialise their sons and daughter more equally than in the past and they now have similar aspirations for them.


Other feminists would criticise liberal feminists for failing to challenge the underlying causes of women's oppression and for believing that changes in the law or in people's attitudes will be enough to bring equality.

Marxist and radical feminists believe that far reaching changes to deep-rooted social structures are needed.

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Difference feminist

We cannot generalise about women's experiences.

Lesbian and heterosexual women, black and white women, middle-class and working-class women, have different experiences of the family from one another.

For example, white feminists neglect black women's experience of racial oppression. Therefore, black feminists view the black family positively as a source of support and resistance against racism.


Other feminists would argue that difference feminists neglect the fact that all women share many of the same experiences. For example, they all face a risk of domestic violence and sexual assault, low pay etc.

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Overall evaluation of feminist view

Dated fairly badly; fail to account for recent economic and social changes like the feminisation of the economy, educational success of young females etc.

Ignore the positive aspects of family life. Too preoccupied with the negative side of family life that they ignore the possibility that many women enjoy running a home and raising children.

Assume all families are manipulated in some way or another by the structure of society.

Postmodernist - feminists ignore the possibility that we have some choice in creating our family relationships. The diversity of family types today reflects that we can choose our set up.

Interpretivist - argue that feminists neglect the meanings families have for individuals and how family members interpret family relationships.


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Personal life perspective


Donor-conceived children


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Marxist, feminist and functionalist theories on family are all structural theories. Meaning they assume that families and its members are puppets are manipulated by the structure of society to perform certain functions. These theories all tend to assume that the traditional nuclear family is the dominant family type whereas many people now live in lone-parent families, stepfamilies etc.

To understand the family today, the personal life perspective believes we must focus on the meanings its members give to their relationships and situations, rather than on the families supposed 'functions'.

They are strongly influenced by interactionist ideas and argues that to understand families we must start from the point of view of the individuals concerned and the meanings they give to their relationships.

They also take into account other 'family' relationships like relationship with friends, fictive kin (close friends you treat as relatives) and relationships with pets. Bekcky Tipper found that children frequently saw their pets as 'part of the family'.

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Donor-conceived children

Nordqvist and Smart found that the issue of blood and genes raised a range of feelings. Some parents emphasised the importance of social relationships over genetic ones when forming family bonds.

A mother of an egg donor-conceived child, defined being a mum in terms of the time and effort put in, not the cell that starts it off.

Difficult feelings could arise for non-genetic parents if someone remarked that the child looked like them. Differences in appearances also led parents to wonder about the donor's identity, any siblings and whether these counted as family or not for their child.

When couples knew their donor, they had to resolve other questions about who counted as family. Do the donor's parents count as grandparents of a donor-conceived child?

For lesbian couples, there were additional problems. Concerns about equality between the genetic and non-genetic mothers and that the donor might be treated as the ‘real’ second parent.

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Evaluation of the personal life perspective

Helps us to understand how people construct and define relationships as 'family'. Rather than imposing traditional sociological definitions of the family from the outside (blood or genes).

Too much of a broad view - by looking at a wide range of relationships we ignore what is special about relationships that are based on blood or marriage.

It does see intimate relationships as performing the important function of providing us with a sense of belonging and relatedness.

Recognises that relatedness is not always positive. For example, people may be trapped in violent, abusive relationships.

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Social policy


New Right




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Social policy - functionalist

The state acts in the interests of the whole society and creates social policies to benefit everyone.

Policies help families to function more effectively and make life better for their members.

Ronald Fletcher - the welfare state supports family in performing its functions.


Assumes all family members benefit from social policies. Feminists argue that policies benefit men at the expense of women.

Assumes there is a 'march of progress' towards making social policies better for families. Marxists argue that policies can also turn the clock back and reverse progress already made. For example, cutting welfare benefits to poor families.

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Social policy - new right

Many policies undermine the family.

They often weaken the family's self-reliance by providing generous benefits. For example, council houses for unmarried teenage mothers.

Charles Murray - a policy like providing houses for unmarried teenage mothers, offer 'perverse incentives'. Which are rewards for irresponsible behaviour. For example, more teenage girls are keeping their babies because of generous benefits which results into more boys growing up without a male role model and authority figure. Which is responsible for a crime rate among young males.


Feminists - NR attempts to justify a return to the traditional patriarchal family that subordinated women to men and to keep them confined to a domestic role.

Wrongly assumes that the patriarchal nuclear family is 'natural', rather than socially constructed.

Cutting benefits would drive many families into deeper poverty.

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Social policy - feminist

Social policies reinforce patriarchal ideas about the roles and status of men and women. For example, tax and benefits policies assume that husbands are the main wage-earners and that wives are their financial dependents. This reinforces women's dependence on their husbands.

Diana Leonard - although maternity leave policies benefit women, they also reinforce patriarchy in the family by encouraging the assumption that the care of infants is the responsibility of mothers rather than fathers.


Not all policies are directed at maintaining patriarchy. For example, equal pay and sex discrimination laws and equal rights to divorce can all be said to challenge the patriarchal family.

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Social policy - marxist

Policies serve capitalism. 

For example, the low level of state pensions is evidence that once workers are too old to produce profits, they are 'maintained' at the lowest possible cost.

Improvements for working-class families, such as pensions and free healthcare, have often only been won through class struggle.


Functionalists believe social policy benefits all members of the family.

Feminists believe Marxists ignore the detrimental effect of family policy on women in particular. 

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Social policy - Donzelot

Policing families

Policy is a form of state power over families.

Doctors and social workers use their knowledge to control and change poorer families (policing of families).

For example, the state may seek to control and regulate family life, therefore they impose compulsory parenting orders through the court. Parents of young offenders or badly behaved children may be forced to attend parenting classes to learn the 'correct' way of bringing up children.


Fails to identify who benefits from policies.

Marxists argue that social policy generally operates in the interest of the capitalist class.

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