sociology family revision


The Family & Social Structure

Some of the common terms used by sociologists to describe family structures include:

  • Kinship – a concept that refers to family connections between people based on blood, marriage or adoption. It refers to relatives, both in the past and in the present, whether close or distant and whether contact is frequent, infrequent or even non–existent.
  • Household – any person, or persons, who live under the same roof. These may be family members, but they may also be unrelated, e.g. a group of students sharing a house are a household.
  • Nuclear family – the most basic family type which is experienced by the majority of people in Britain. This contains just two generations, i.e. an adult heterosexual couple (usually husband and wife) and their dependent children who live in the same household.
  • Extended families – those family types in which the basic nuclear structure has been enlarged to include grandparents, uncles, cousins, etc. and who either live in the same household or in close proximity, e.g. in the same neighborhood or keep in close frequent contact, e.g. contact may be on a daily basis.
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The Family & Social Structure

The functionalist view of the family The functionalist approach argues that all social institutions (such as families and the education system) are functional or beneficial because they perform key functions for individuals and for society. Murdock (1949) studied over 250 societies around the world and argued that the nuclear family was universal throughout the world. He claimed that it had the following features:

  • It is small and compact in structure, composed of a mother, father, and usually two or three children who are biologically related.
  • It is a type of household in that its members normally share common residence.
  • It is based on heterosexual romantic love reinforced by marriage and fidelity.
  • Marriage is based on a natural, or biological, sexual division of labor in that women are mainly responsible for nurturing children, whilst men are responsible for the economic maintenance of the household by performing the role of breadwinner.
  • The immediate family comes first and all other obligations and relationships come second. Kinship, therefore, is all-important.
  • It is assumed, almost without question, that the family is a positive and beneficial institution in which family members receive nurturing, unconditional love, and care.
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The Marxist theory of the family Zaretsky is critical of Parsons because he believes that instead of benefitting society by promoting consensus and stability, the nuclear family actually benefits the ruling capitalist class at the expense of other social classes. He argues that the family is an ideological agent of the ruling class because:

  • It socializes children, especially working-class children, into capitalist ideology, i.e. it is within the family that children learn obedience and respect to those in authority, that inequalities in power are ‘natural’ and that the capitalist organization of society is ‘normal’ and unchangeable. They grow up into conformist adult workers who rarely challenge exploitation and inequality.
  • The family also acts as a psychological comforting device for the worker against the hardships of the workplace in which problems such as low pay, exploitation, or fear of losing one’s job can be forgotten for a while.
  • As the major agency of consumption the family is constantly encouraged by ideological agencies, such as the mass media, to invest in what Marcuse calls ‘false needs’, i.e. consumer goods bought to be conspicuously consumed and which quickly become obsolete (such as designer goods). This ensures that the capitalist class continues to make vast profits.
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The Family & Social Structure

The liberal feminist theory of the family Liberal feminists suggest that in the family boys and girls learn, via gender role socialization, that they occupy positions of power and subordination respectively. Boys learn that they are more likely to be the breadwinners, heads of the household, and decision-makers, whilst girls learn that they are expected to subordinate their lives to the family. Liberal feminists also believe that the legal and political barriers which have traditionally prevented women from achieving equality in the family and workplace are gradually being overcome, e,g. women have benefitted from changes in divorce laws, **** in marriage is now a crime and the authorities now take domestic violence more seriously than in the past. Women enjoy property rights and inheritance on an equal basis to men and they now enjoy improved maternity rights and pensions. Liberal feminists consider that progress has been made over time in the relations between men and women and, consequently, family roles and relationships have become more egalitarian.

  • The increasing importance of the service economy has been accompanied by a feminization of the British workforce as most of the new service jobs available have been taken up by women. This has led to women acquiring more economic power.
  • There has been a radical cultural change in women’s attitudes which Wilkinson calls a genderquake. Wilkinson notes, that compared to previous generations, women today see education and careers as having more importance than settling down to marriage and children.
  • Men may be taking a more active and, consequently, a more egalitarian role within families. There is evidence that fathers are more involved with their children.
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The Family & Social Structure

Murdock claimed that this nuclear family performs four basic functions in all societies, which benefit both society and the individual.

  • Reproductive or procreative – this is essential for the survival of society. Without reproduction, society would cease to exist.
  • Sexual – marital sex creates a powerful emotional bond between a couple, encourages fidelity, and therefore commits the individual to family life. Sex within marriage contributes to social order and stability because marital fidelity sets the moral rules for general sexual behavior.
  • Economic – parents provide the economic things that are vital for sustaining life in children, such as shelter, food, and protection, e.g. they take economic responsibility for the welfare of their children by becoming productive workers and bringing home an income.
  • Educational – learning social values and norms via primary socialization is necessary in order that culture be handed down from one generation to another. The family links to the key themes of socialization and culture.

Criticism of Murdock The main criticism of Murdock is that his definition of family life is very much a product of time and place (1940s USA) and consequently is ethnocentric, i.e. it is based on the view that Western, and especially American, culture produces the ‘best’ cultural institutions and that other cultural family types are somehow inferior. Interpretivist sociologists argue that Murdock fails to acknowledge that families are the product of culture rather than biology, and that, consequently, family relationships and roles will take different forms even within the same society. Murdock’s model is value-laden and not objective because it is clearly saying there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to organize family life. It is also very dated and fails to take account of modern social processes such as the increased availability of career choices for women, the decline in male employment opportunities, the importance of the contraceptive pill, the relaxation in social and religious attitudes and the increasing recognition, from the 1970s onwards, that family life does not always benefit all family members.

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However, Fletcher argues that the family has not experienced structural differentiation to the degree that Parsons claims. Fletcher argues that the family is still heavily involved in the functions of education, health and welfare. The State has not taken over these functions. Instead, the State and the family work hand-in-hand with each other. Moreover, Fletcher claims that the family is now responsible for the major economic function of consumption – most advertising of consumer goods is aimed at persuading families to spend their income so that the economy is stimulated. The British functionalists Willmott and Young (1973) took issue with Parsons over the speed of change. This is sometimes called the ‘internal critique’ because these sociologists agree with Parsons that the nuclear family is the ideal type of family for industrial societies. Their empirical research, conducted in a working class area (Bethnal Green) in the 1950s, showed that classic extended families still existed in large numbers even at this advanced stage of industrialisation. Willmott and Young argue that this unit only went into decline in the 1960s. There were three broad reasons for this.

  • State council housing and slum clearance led to extended working class communities being re-housed in new towns and council estates. Most new housing was geared to nuclear families.
  • The Welfare State – opportunities created by the expansion of secondary education, and full employment in the 1950s, undermined the need for a mutual support system.
  • Consumerism became the dominant ideology in the 1960s, especially as home technology, e.g. television, developed. This made the home a more attractive place.
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The historical critique of Parsons Historians, such as Anderson (1971) and Laslett (1977), suggest that Parsons failed to acknowledge that industrialisation may follow different patterns in different industrial societies, e.g. modern Japan still retains a commitment to the extended family form. Laslett’s survey of English parish records reveals that most pre-industrial families were nuclear and not extended, as Parsons claimed. Laslett argues that this was due to late marriage, early death and the practice of sending children away to become servants or apprentices. Anderson’s research, using data from the 1851 census, found that the extended family was fairly common in industrial Preston. A mutual support system evolved, in reaction to the extreme poverty of the period, to share scarce housing and high rents and to pool low wages.

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