Functionalist view of the family


Functionalist perspective

  • Functionalists see society as an interrelated whole
  • Every institution in society performs one or more important functions that benefit society as a whole
  • Society needs consensus about norms and values in order to survive
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George Murdock (1949)

  • Murdock (1949) believed that the nuclear family is a universal institution vital to the well being of all societies.
  • Study of 250 societies- identified 4 functions of the family.
  • The sexual function- Family prevents disruption to society by limiting sexuality to monogamous relationships, preventing the conflict that may otherwise result from sexual desire.
  • The reproductive function- Family ensures reproduction of new generation, vital for the survival of society.
  • The economic function-Family acts as an economic unit, ensuring survival of memebers by providing food and shelter.
  • The educational function- Family provides a stable environment in which children can be socialised into the culture of their society.
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Parsons- the basic and irreducible functions of th

Talcott Parsons (1959, 1965) found that even though the family had lost some functions, it retains two 'basic and irreductible functions.'

1) Primary socialisation:  The family was the only place that primary socialisation could take place effectively so that children would initialize the norms and values of their society.

2) Stabilisation of adult personalities: The stress of work for the husband can be counterbalanced by the warmth and security offered by the nuclear family, and within the family adults can act out the childish elements in their personalities.

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Parsons- changing family structure

Parsons believed that the structure of the family changes to fit the needs of different types of society.

(In pre-industrial societies the extended family was the norm. Most people worked in agriculture and the extended family worked the land.)


Industry required a geographically mobile workforce which could move to where new factories were being built, and this was difficult with larger families.

A socially mobile workforce was also neccessary.

In extended families, status was usually ascribed, with elder males having higher status. This could cause problems if a younger male achieved higher status by having a better job. Nuclear families without extended kin avoided this problem.

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Parsons- changing functions of the family

Parson argues that as society changes, the family loses some of its functions.

For example, healthcare and support for the family used to be the responsibility of the family. Now the welfare state has taken over much of the responsibility.

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Ronald Fletcher (1966)

Ronald Fletcher (1966) believed that the family developed some new functions such as acting as a unit of consumption- goods are bought for the family as a whole.

He believed that the family retains important functions in education and health, supplementing and supporting the job done by teachers, doctors and hospitals.

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Criticisms of Functionalism

  • Some societies do not have traditional families
  • Ignores 'dark side' of family life e.g. domestic violence, sexual abuse
  • Feminists argue that men benefit more than women
  • Functionalists say society and families benefit from men being breadwinners and women being housewives- Feminists say this is sexist and patriarchal
  • Postmodernists say there are many alternatives to the nuclear family. Nuclear family makes up less than 20% of families in Britain today
  • Theories are outdated
  • Ignore decline of nuclear family and increasing family diversity
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