The Functionalist Perspective on the Family

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  • Created on: 08-11-19 18:13

The Functionalist Perspective

  • Focus on the positive functions of the nuclear family, i.e. secondary socialisation and stabilisation of adult personalities
  • Regard society as a system of different parts that depend on each other. Different institutions perform different functions for society, as do the organs in the human body (organic analogy), in order to maintain it as a whole
  • Functionalists see the family as an important socialising agent, a “basic building block of society” that also performs key emotional support for it’s members. Stable families underpin social order and economic stability
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Murdock: The Four Essential Functions of the Nucle

  • Looked at 200 different societies and argued the nuclear family was present in all of them
  • Suggested there were four essential functions of the family:
    • Stable satisfaction of the sex drive- within monogamous relationships
    • The biological reproduction of the next generation- without which society cannot continue
    • Socialisation of the young- teaching basic norms and values
    • Meeting it’s members economic needs- providing food and shelter for example
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Criticisms of Murdock

  • Feminist argue his ideas are ideological- family structures usually disadvantage women
  • Possible for other institutions to perform these functions
  • Anthropological research shows that not all societies have the concept of families, the Nayar, for example
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Parsons: Functional Fit Theory

  • As society changes, the type of family that “fits”, and the functions it performs also changes
  • Over the last 200 years, society has changed from pre-industrial to industrial (from 1800 onwards in the UK) and the extended family has changed to the nuclear family. The nuclear family better fits the needs of industrial society, but performs less functions. 
  • Extended families consisted of parents, children, grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins all living under one roof; a type of family form that fitted the needs of pre-industrial society, as they were entirely responsible for the education of children, production of food and healthcare
  • In contrast, in industrial society, the common family form became the isolated nuclear family, as this is what fit the needs of that society, as it required a mobile workforce. It was too difficult to transport the extended families where the jobs where, also many of the functions they used to perform were now provided by the state.
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Criticisms of Parsons’ Functional Fit Theory

  • It's too neat- social change doesn’t happen in such an orderly manner
  • Laslett found that only 10% of pre-industrial families were extended, this suggests the nuclear family was already in effect, even before industrialisation
  • Young and Willmott found that the extended kin networks were still strong, as late at the 1970’s
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Parsons: The Two Essential or Irreducible Function

  • Even though the nuclear family performs reduces functions, it’s still the only institutions that can perform two essential functions for society: Primary Socialisation and Stabilisation of Adult Personalities
  • Primary Socialisation: a key function of the family is teaching children the key norms and values of society. An important part of this is “gender-role socialisation”, where, of done correctly, boys learn to adopt an “instrumental role” (aka the breadwinner role) and girls learn to adopt an “expressive role”, doing all the caring work, housework and raising the children
  •  Stabilisation of Adult Personalities: emotional security achieved in a marital relationship between two adults. According to Parsons, life in industrial society is stressful and demanding, and the family is a place where the working man can be “de-stressed” by his wife, which reduces conflict in society (aka “the warn bath theory”)
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Criticisms of the Functionalist Perspective

  • Downplaying conflict: Functionalists paint a “rose-tinted” view of the family and ignore the “dark side” of the family, in particular, things like violence against women and children
  • Being out of date: Parsons’ view of the expressive and instrumental role, is very much irrelevant to life today. Whilst it may have held some truth in the 1950’s, today many women are in paid work, so men and women are likely to take on both roles
  • Ignoring the exploitation of women: ignore the sexual division of labour for women; event today, women end up being the primary caregiver in 90% of households, meaning they work harder than their male counterparts. Gender roles are socially contrasted and often end up with women being exploited. There are no biological reasons for the functionalist view of separate roles, but these roles lead to women being disadvantaged
  • Too deterministic: they ignore the fact that children actively create their own personalities, it isn’t something that is pre-determined at birth. Functionalists wrongly assume an almost robotic outlook on the socialisation of children
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