Sociology- Functionalism

HideShow resource information
  • Created on: 22-04-13 11:29

Functionalist Views- Murdock

Functionalists are interested in how the various institutions and groups in a society, such as families, social classes, the eduction system, the economy, government, criminal justice system and so on, function together as a cooperative whole. The family maintains the social system by producing the next generation of responsible citizens, workers and parents. Within the family too, individual members have different roles that complement one another so that each individual benefits. 

G.P. Murdock

In social structure (1949), Murdock explained the four vital family functions as follows: 

  • Production of new generations: Couples living together produce children more regularly in a setting where fathers can mothers and new-borns. 
  • Regulation of sexual activity: Established families avoid the destructive competition between potential partners found in the animal kingdom.
  • Provision of economic support and the necessities of life through the division of labour: Men undertake strenuous tasks, ranging further afield than women, whose complementary role entails pregnancy, nursing and ligther tasks.
  • Socialisation of children into the culture of the community: Children learn norms and values and each adult teaches children of the same sex about their future roles. 
1 of 8

Functionalist Views- Murdock


Murdock wrote before the feminist movement, and took it for granted that traditional gender roles were universal and desirable. He claimed to have found a similar gendered division of labour in 250 societies. However, feminist Ann Oakley (1974) re-examined his data, finding that he had ignored societies in which traditional gender roles were reversed or shared by both sexes. She argued that the division of labour he described is not universaland that, as even one exeception demonstrates that gender roles are socially constructed, it is possible to change them. 

EXAM TIP: When faced with a question asking you, for example, to assess functionalist views of the family, remember to evaluate the ideas as frequently as you can, including instances such as Oakley's criticism of Murdock. Students sometimes summarise the views of several sociologists, intending to evaluate them all at the end, but then run out of time, failing to earn evaluation marks. Another effective form evaluation is to compare two sociologists who hold the same perspective, such as Murdock and Parsons. 

2 of 8

Functionalist Views- Parsons

Talcott Parsons 

Parsons broadly argeed with Murdock but focused his attention on the 'modern isolated' nuclear family in the United States. In Family, socialisation and Interaction process (1955) Parsons and Bales noted that many of the tasks of families performed in simipler societies, such as hunting and growing food, were no longer part of their role. Only two 'irreducible functions' were left: 

  • the socialistion of children into their society's culture; 
  • the stabilisation of adult personalities

Where the first point agrees with Murdock, the second is new. It relates to the comfort and emotional support adults within a family gain by living together. Parsons elaborated on Murdock's ideas about how children were socialised into gender roles by the same sex parent. He took a similarly conservative view, describing the female role as expressive (caring and nuturing) and the male one as instrumental (pratical). 

3 of 8

Functionalist Views- Parsons

He argued that before the Industrial Revolution, families living off the land tended to be large and extended, somtimes leading to a blurring of gender roles as, for example, grandparents might care for children while women as well as men were productive. However, since industrailisation, it is common for smaller family units to move where the work is. These nuclear families are more isolated from kin, so men rely on their wives to look after children and women depend on their husbands as bread-winners. 

Evaluation It is important to remember that traditional female, as well as male, roles are instrumental, as preparing food and other domestic tasks are practical. Many men have expressive roles in the caring professions. Feminists challenge Parson's idea that gender roles nowadays have to be divided as he described, as there is no reason why men and women should not share both bread-winning and caring roles. 

4 of 8

Functionalist Views- Fletcher

Ronald Fletcher

Fletcher waas a British functionalist. In The Family and Marriage in Britain (revised 1966) he wrote: 'Marriage seems to be becoming, as it is likely to become increasingly in the future, a relationship of affection and companionship quite apart from having and rearing of children.' 

This relates to Parson's idea of the 'stabilisation of adult personalities'. Though most couples choose to have children, they spend many years together after the children leave home enjoying companionship. Where this fails, many remarry quite soon: 'It is decidedly not marriage itself that divorced people are seeking to avoid'. 

To Fletcher, the family was stronger than in the past where women often married for economic support and because of pressure from their community and were unable to dissolve their marriages if unhappy. His 'march of progress' theory paints the family as a fulfilling arrangement of choice.  However, he was concerned that the family had become too privatised, its members caring little about the problems of wider society as they enjoyed the 'warm bath' of intimate life. He believed in the need for a universal 'new family of man' through cooperation with others, as well as satisfying personal relationships. 

5 of 8

Functionalist Views- Fletcher


Fletcher wrote before the Divorce Reform Act of 1969 (in effect from 1971), and so may have underestimated the disruption easier divorce was to cause in many families. 

Some of his views were somewhat unusual for a functionalist. Though functionalists view the family's role as integrating children into a wider society for the benefit of all, the idea that the privatised family takes little interest in social problems is more often associated with Marxists. 

6 of 8

Functionalist- Roles in gay households

A study of gay households by Weeks, Donavon and Heaphy (1999) foun that roles are likely to be more flexible than in neo-conventional families, as couples are experimenting with an untyraditional arrangement. Even where one partner works full time while the other stays at home to care for children, it is less likely that the partner at home will be expected to do the bulk of the housework and childcare during times that the earner is at home. 


Though not written from a deliberately functionalist perspective, this study provides an update on role sharing between partners. 

7 of 8

Functionalist- The dysfunctional family

There are a good number of arguments suggesting that functionalists paint far too rosy a picture of the family. Evidence includes: 

  • views that the 'pressure cooker' of family life can mantally damage its members from researchers such as Arnold Green, Ezra Vogel and Norman Bell and R.D. Laing. Edmund Leach, in his Reith Lecture A Runaway World? (1967) described parents in conflict and children rebelling and wrote: 'Far from being the basis of a good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, isthe source of all our discontents'; 
  • the widespread nature of domestic violence and child abuse, documented by researchers such as Rebecca and Russell Dobash;
  • Marxist David Cooper's view that parents' insistence on obedience produces a docile proletariat. 
8 of 8


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Families and households resources »