Sociology Unit 1


  • What is Functionalism? Functionalism was the first major sociological theory that is based on Consensus. Functionalists believed that society is built on a Value Consensus- a shared set of norms and values into which society socialises it's members.This enables them to co-operate harmoniously to meet society's needs and achieved shared goals. Functionalists view the family as a vital part of society, as it has a number of functions that leads to Social Solidarity- The integration of people into society through shared values, a common culture, shared understandings and social ties that bind them together. Functionalists regard society as a system made up of different sub-systems such as the Family, the education system and the economy.

  • Key Theorists: Durkheim/ Murdock/ Parsons/ Fletcher
  • Key Terms: Institution/ Nuclear Family/ Value Consensus/ Social Solidarity/ Primary Socialization/ Stabilization/ Instrumental Role/ Expressive Role/ Norms/ Values/ Biological Analogy/ Family
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George Murdock 1949

  • George Murdock believed that there were four universal functions of the family. Murdock argues that the family performs these basic functions for individuals and society and these are applicable to all societies.
  • Sexual: A stable satisfaction of the sex drive, with the same partner preventing the social disruption caused by a sexual 'free for all'.
  • Reproductive: Reproduction of the next genereation without which society could not continue.
  • Economic: Providing economic needs such as food or shelter.
  • Educational: Socialising the young into society's shared norms and values.
  • Criticisms:
  • Does not consider that other social institutions such as the education system may be able to provide these functions.
  • He also presumes that the nuclear family is always harmonious.
  • Murdock's definition of the family is criticised for being too narrow as it excludes single parent and gay families.
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Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim believed that society, and the institutions within, could be compared to a human body. Each vital organ of the body could be compared to a vital institution in society(such as the family) and without, society/the body would fail and not carry out a vital function. This can be referred to as Organic Analogy.

Durkheim believed that crime was not only normal in any society, but was also functional. It was normal because no society existed in which some level of crime was not evident, and functional as it served to reinforce social norms, provide the raw material for social change and provide a kind of "safety valve" for social discontent.

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Talcott Parsons 1955

Talcott Parsons believes that there are two 'basic and irreducible' functions of the family:

  • Primary Socialization of children to equip them with basic skills and society's values, to enable them to co-operate with others and begin to integrate them into society.  
  • Stabilization of adult personalities meaning the family is a place where adults can relax and release tensions, enabling them to return to the workplace refreshed and ready to meet its demands. This is functional for the efficiency of the economy. 
  • Parsons suggests that the family helps to stabilize adult personalities by the sexual division of labor within the family. In his view, women have an expressive role in the family providing warmth, security and emotional support whereas the male partner carries the instrumental role as the breadwinner. (Warm Bath theory)
  • In the view of Parsons, the functions that the family performs depends on the kind of society in which it is found. Parsons argues that the functions of a given family type will 'fit' the needs of the society it is found in.(Functional Fit theory)
  • For example, the Traditional Pre-Industrial family fit the needs of it's society as it was extended, multi-functional and was both a unit of consumption and a unit of production. Whereas the Modern Industrial family is nuclear, geographically/socially mobile and performs only two essential functions.
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Talcott Parsons 1955 Continued

  • According to Parsons, when society industrializes, the family not only changes its structure from extended to nuclear, it also loses many of its functions. For example, in the pre-industrialized family, health and well-being was taken care of by the family, whereas now it is performed by specialized institutions such as the NHS.

  • Criticisms: 
  • Parsons presents an idealistic view of the family, ignoring the fact domestic violence can occur in the family.
  • He bases his views on the American middle-class family, ignoring different classes and ethnic groups.
  • He fails to explore alternatives to the family. 
  • He ignores the way that children can actively shape their own personalities, instead claiming that socialization performs that function.
  • The typical gender roles are out of date.
  • Can the family perform these functions on its own in contemporary society?
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Fletcher 1966

  • Fletcher denied Parson's loss of functions theory. He suggests that in pre-industrial society and early industrial society poverty meant that functions such as welfare, education or recreation were not carried out, children were frequently neglected. 


  • Fletcher argues that the family now has more rather than fewer responsibilities and functions placed on it. For example, more intervention form the government and social services meant parents cannot neglect or abuse children but have more responsibility towards them.


  • Fletcher says that the family plays an important economic role as a unit of consumption. The modern family is particularly concerned with raising living standards of the family and 'keeping up' with neighbors through buying a while host of goods targeted at families such as TV's, cars, holidays etc.
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