Theories of the Family

Information was taken from:

AQA Sociology Book 1 (Including AS Level) - written by Webb, Westergaard, Trobe and Townend


Introduction to Funtionalism

Functionalism is a structural approach, seeing us as being entirely shaped by society. It is also a consensus perspective (harmony), and takes a macro (large-scale) approach to sociology. 


  • believe that society is based on a value consensus (a set of shared norms and values) into which society socialises its members

  • regard society as a system made up of different parts/sub-systems that depend on each other - this is often compared to a biological organism (like the human body); each system plays a vital role in the wellbeing of society
  • sees the family as a particularly important sub-system - this is argued by Murdock (1949) and Parsons (1955)
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Murdock (1949)

...argues that the family performs 4 essential functions to meet the needs of society and its members:

1. Stable Satisfaction of the Sex Drive (with the same person, preventing the social disruption caused by a sexual 'free-for-all')

2. Reproduction of the Next Generation (without which, society could not continue)

3. Socialisation of the Young (into society's shared norms and values) 

4. Meeting its Members' Economic Needs (such as food and shelter)

Murdock accepts that other institutions could peform these functions equally well; this is argued by many other sociologists.

Marxists and feminists reject the 'rose-tinted', harmonious approach that many functionalists take, arguing instead that functionalism neglects the conflict and exploitation within the family.

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Parsons (1955) - The 'Functional Fit' Theory

Parsons argues that the functions the family performs depends on the kind of society in which it is found:

  • Pre-Industrial Society (the extended family fits the needs of this kind of society)
  • Modern Industrial Society (the nuclear family fits the needs of this kind of the society

Why Does the Nuclear Family Fit the Modern Industrial Society?

1) The nuclear family is geographically mobile (it would be difficult for an large extended family to move to where jobs are)

2) The nuclear family is socially mobile (in industrial societies, an individual's status is achieved through effort/ability; the extended family would not be suited to this because if adult sons lived with their fathers there may be conflict if the son were to gain a higher status than that of the father) 

Young and Willmott claim that industrialisation actually brought a rise in the extended family for the working-class, as generations relied on each other for financial and emotional support. 

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Parsons (1955) - Two Irreducible Functions

Parsons argues that with a change in structure, the family has lost several functions - for example, the family is no longer a unit of production; with industrialisation, work moved into the factories and the family became a unit of production only. 

Yet, according to Parsons, there remains to be two remaining functions:

1) Primary Socialisation of Children - to equip them with basic skills and society's values

2) The Stablisation of Adult Personalities - 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

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Introduction to Marxism

Marxism is a structural perspective, taking a macro (large-scale) approach. However, unlike functionalists, Marxist sociologists take a conflict approach. 


  • believe society is capitalist - based on unequal conflict between the capitalist class (who own the means of productions) and the working class (whose labour the capitalists exploit for profit)
  • see all society's institutions (including the family) as helping to maintain class inequality and capitalism
  • thus argue that the functions of the family are performed purely for the benefit of the capitalist system
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Engels - Inheritance of Property

Marxists argue that one of the main functions of the family is the inheritance of property. 

  • they argue that early in society, there was no private property - all members of society owned the means of productions
  • however, as society's wealth increased and private property developed, a class of men emerged who were able to secure control of the means of production.
  • this eventually brought about the patriarchal monogomous nuclear family.

Engels argues that monogamy became essential because these men had to be certain of the paternity of their children to ensure that legitimate heirs inherited from them

(In Engel's view, the rise of the monogomous nuclear family represented a 'world of historical defeat of the female sex'; it brought women's sexuality under male control and turned women into 'a mere instrument in the production of children'. 

This idea, however, ignores how in socialist/communist countries today, the nuclear family does exist. 

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Zaretsky (1976) - Ideological Functions

Marxists also argue that the family today also performs key ideological functions for capitalism. By ideology, marxists mean a set of ideas of beliefs that justify inequality and maintain the capitalist system by persuading people to accept it as fair, natural, or unchallengable

This is done through socialisation of children, i.e. teaching them to believe hierarchy and inequality are inevitable. Parents' power over children teaches them the idea that there always has to be someone in charge (usually a man) and this prepares them for a working life in which they will accept orders from their capitalist employers

Zaretsky argues that the family offers an apparent haven from the harsh world of capitalism outside, where workers can relax; this is largely an illusion as the family arguably cannot meet its member's needs. E.g. it is based on the domestic servitude of women.

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A Unit of Consumption

Marxists also argue that the family is a unit of consumption. 

Capitalism exploits workers, and their families, by making a profit by sellfing the products of their labour to them for more than it pays them to produce these products. The family is thus esstential in generating profits for capitalists. Families are often targeted for the sale of consumer goods:

  • Advertisers urge families to 'keep up with the Joneses' by consuming all the latest products
  • The media targets children, who use 'pester power' to persuade parents to spend more
  • Children who lack the latest clothes or 'must have' gadgets are mocked and stigmatised by their peers

Marxists tend to assume that the nuclear family is dominant in capitalist society. This ignored the wide range of family structures found in society today. 

Feminists argue that the Marxist emphasis on class and capitalism underestimates the importance of gender inequalities within the family. 

Functionalists argue that Marxists ignore the very real benefits that the family provides for its members. 

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Introduction to Feminism

Like Marxists, feminists are a structural approach who take a conflictmacro (large-scale) approach towards society. They also have a critical view of the family. Feminists...

  • argue that the family oppresses women
  • reject the idea that gender inequality is natural/inevitable, and argue instead that it is something created by society

However, there are different types of feminist who have slightly different ideas about the family, offering different solutions to the problem of gender inequality. The types of feminist to be studied are...

1) Liberal feminists

2) Marxist feminists

3) Radical feminists

4) Difference feminists

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Liberal Feminism

  • Campaign for equal rights/opportunities, arguing that women's oppression is being gradually overcome through challenging attitudes and the law (e.g. the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act), which outlawed discrimination in employment. 
  • Believe that there is now greater equality, but more change is needed

  • Hold similar views to that of Young and Willmott with the 'march of progress' view, arguing that there has been progress regarding gender equality in the family

Other feminists argue that liberal feminists fail to challenge the underlying causes of women's oppression.

Marxist and radical feminists believe far-reaching changed are still needed.

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Marxist Feminism

Argue that women's oppressoin is not caused by men, but rather, capitalism. They say that women's oppression performs several functions for capitalism:

1) Women reproduce the labour force through unpaid domestic labour, socialising the next generation of workers and maintaining/servicing the current one

2) Women absorb anger that would otherwise be directed at capitalism - Ansley (1972) describes how wives are 'takers of ****', who soak up the frustration their husbands feel because of the alienation and exploitation they suffer at work

3) Women are a reserve army of cheap labour that can be taken on when extra workers are needed. When no longer needed, employers can simply 'let them go'. 

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Radical Feminism

Radical Feminists argue...

  • men are the enemy/source of women's oppression
  • the family/marriages are the key institutions in patriarchal society

They say that the patriarchal system needs to be overturned and the family abolished. They argue that this can only be done through separatism (where women live independently of men) 

Some even support 'political lesbianism' - the idea that heterosexual relationships are oppressive because they involve 'sleeping with the enemy'. Greer (2000) argues for the creation of all-female/'matrilocal' households as an alternative to heterosexual families. 

Somerville states that radical feminists fail to recognise that women's positions have improved - with better access to divorce, job opportunities, control over their fertility, and ability to choose whether to marry/cohabit.

Also, heterosexual attraction makes it unlikely that separatism would work.

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Difference Feminism

Difference feminists argue that we cannot assume that all women live in a nuclear family, so we shouldn't generalise about women's experiences.

White/black, working-class/middle-class, heterosexual/lesbian women all have different experiences of the family from each other. 

By regarding the family negatively, white feminists neglect black women's experience of racial oppression - black feminists view the family positively as a source of support against racism.

However, other feminists argue difference feminism neglects that all women share many of the same experiences. For example, they are all at risk of domestic violence/sexual assault/ low pay.

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Introduction to the Personal Life Perspective

The personal life perspective argues that functionalism, Marxism, and feminism all suffer from two major weaknesses:

1) They tend to assume that the traditional nuclear family is the dominant family type - ignoring the increased diversity of families today 

2) They are all structural theories - assuming that family members are simply passive puppets manipulated by the structure of society to perform certain functions.

The personal life perspective (including interactionists and post-modernists) take a social action view, arguing that we have some choice in creating our family relationships and we must focus on the meaning members give to relationships instead of the family's supposed 'functions'.

This means that they take a 'bottom up' approach, emphasising meanings that individual family members hold, and how these shape their actions and relationships.

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Beyond Ties of Blood and Marriage

The personal life perspective takes a wider view of relationships than traditional 'family' relationships which are based on blood/marriage ties. 

By focussing on people's meanings, the personal life perspective draws attention to a range of other personal/intimate relationships that may not be defined as 'family', yet give people a sense of identity, belonging, and relatedness. These include...

  • Relationships with friends - who may be 'like a sister/brother' to you 
  • Fictive kin - close friends who are often treated as relatives
  • Gay/lesbian 'chosen families' - made up of a supportive network of close friends
  • Relationships with dead relatives - who live on in people's memories and shape their identities and affect their actions
  • Relationships with pets - e.g. children often see pets as 'part of the family' (Tipper, 2011)

However, critics question how legitimate it is to count pets, dead relatives, and friends as family. 

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Nordqvist & Smart (2014) - Donor-Conceived Childre

In their research, Nordqvist and Smart found that the issue of blood and genes raised a range of feelings.

Some parents emphasised the importance of social relationships over genetic ones in forming family bonds. For example, Erin, the mother of an egg donor-conceived child, defined being a mum in terms of the time and effort she put into raising her child - 'that's what makes a mother'. 

Difficult feelings arose for non-genetic parents if somebody said that the child looked like them. Differences in appearance made these parents wonder about the doner's identity, possible 'doner-siblings' and whether they counted as family. These questions were the same with couples, who had to consider whether the doner's parents counted as grandparents of a doner-conceived child. 

Nordqvist and Smart's study helps us to understand how people themselves construct/define their relationships as 'family'. 

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Evaluation of the Personal Life Perspective

  • Recognises that relatedness is not always positive. E.g. people may be trapped in violent, abusive relationships or simply in ones where they suffer everyday unhappiness, hurt or lack of respect
  • The perspective can be accused of taking too broad a view. Critics argue that, by including a wide range of different kinds of personal relationships, we ignore what is special about relationships that are based on blood or marriage
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