Theories of The Family

Theories of The Family from the Families & Household topic of AQA A level Sociology


Functionalist perspective on the family

Functionalists see the family as an important sub system which makes up society. Murdock argues that the nuclear family performs four essential functions to meet the needs of society and its members:

  • Stable satisfaction of the sex drive with the same partner, preventing the social disruption caused by a sexual free for all
  • Reproduction of the next generation, without which society could not continue
  • Socialisation of the young into society's shared norms and values
  • Meeting its members' economic needs such as food and shelter

However, critics argue that other family types can perform these functions just as well, Feminists say that the family only serves the needs of men and oppresses women and Marxists say it only meets the needs of capitalism so these two perspectives disagree with the consensus view that the family meets the needs of society and themselves

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Functionalist perspective on the family

Parsons' functional fit theory

In the view of Parsons, the functions that the family performs will depend on the kind of society in which it is found. The functions that the family has to perform will affect its structure so he distinguishes between two kinds of family structure:

  • The nuclear family - parents and their dependent children
  • The extended family - three generations living under one roof

The nuclear family fits the needs of industrial society while the extended family fits the needs of a pre-industrial society. When Britain began to industrialise from the late 18th century the extended family gave way to the nuclear family as it had different needs so the family had to adapt in order to meet these needs

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Functionalist perspective on the family

Parsons sees industrial society as having two essential needs:

1. A geographically mobile workforce - In traditional society people often spent their whole lives living and working in the same village but in modern society industries constantly spring up and decline meaning people are required to move to where the jobs are, usually the major towns and cities. Parsons argues that it is easier for the compact nuclear family to move so is better fitted to the need that modern industry has for a geographically mobile workforce

2. A socially mobile workforce - Modern industrial society is based on constantly evolving science and technology so requires a skilled workforce. It is essential that talented people take on the most important jobs and in modern society an individual's status is not abscribed so makes social mobility possible. The nuclear family encourages social mobility as the son can have a higher achieved status than his father so is able to move out with his nuclear family and be structurally isolated from their extended kin

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Functionalist perspective on the family

Loss of functions

The pre industrial family was a multi functional unit. It was both a unit of production in which family members worked together, like on a farm, and a unit of consumption by feeding its members so was more self sufficent. When society industrialises the family not only changes its structure from extended to nuclear it also loses some of its functions

For example the family is no longer a unit of production as work moves into the factories and they lose many other functions to education etc. As a result of these loss of functions the nuclear family specialises in two functions; the primary socialisation of children to equip them with society's values and the stabilisation of adult personalities where the family is a place for adults to relax so they can refresh themselves ready for work

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Marxist perspective on the family

For Marxists the functions of the family are performed purely for the benefit of the capitalist system. They have identified several functions that they see as the family fulfilling for capitalism:

1. Inheritance of property

In modern society, it is the capitalist class who own and control means of production. Marx called the earliest, classless society, primitive communism. There was no private ownership and no family structure as such. When the forces of production developed, society's wealth began to increase with the development of private property introducing the patriarchal nuclear family. Monogamy became essential because of the inheritance of private property and with this brought women's sexuality under male control. Marxists argue that only an overthrow of capitalism will women achieve liberation as there will be no need for transmitting private property

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Marxist perspective on the family

2. Ideological functions

Marxists also argue that the family performs key ideological functions for capitalism. They do this by socialising children into the idea that hierarchy and inequality are inevitable. Parental power prepares them for a working life in which they have to accept orders from their employers

3. A unit of consumption

The family plays a major role in generating profits for capitalists as it is an important market for the sale of consumer goods. Advertisers urge families to keep up with the times by consuming all the latest products such as Apple gadgets, The media also targets children such as through Nickelodeon channel who use pester power to persuade parents to spend more and children who lack the latest gear are stigmatised by their parents

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Marxist perspective on the family


  • They tend to assume that the nuclear family is dominant in capitalist society ignoring the wide range of family structures found in society today
  • Feminists argue that they ignore gender inequalities and are 'gender blind'. They see the family as primarily serving the needs of men not capitalism
  • Functionalists argue that they ignore the real benefits that the family provides for its members
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Feminist perspectives on the family

1. Liberal feminism

They hold a march of progress view where although they don't believe that full gender equality has yet been achieved in the family, they argue that there has been gradual progress. Studies to support this include more men doing domestic work and a change in socialisation where girls are encouraged to have high aspirations too.

However, they are criticised for failing to challenge the underlying causes of women's oppression and being unrealistic in thinking laws and policies will bring about change. Marxist and radical feminists think more revolutionary changes are needed

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Feminist perspectives on the family

2. Marxist feminism

They argue that the main cause of women's oppression in the family is not men but capitalism. Women's oppression performs several functions for capitalism:

  • Women reproduce the labour force through their unpaid domestic labour, by socialising the next generation of workers and by maintaining the current one
  • Women absorb anger that would otherwise be aimed at capitalism, Ansley says wives are 'takers of sh*t' who soak up their husband's frustration at work explaining domestic violence
  • Women are a reserve army of cheap labour such as in World War 2 where women went to work in the factories whilst the men were fighting but once the men were back they were expected to go back into the home

However, critics argue that this doesn't explain women's subordination in the family in communist societies

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Feminist perspectives on the family

3. Radical feminism

They argue that all societies have been found on patriarchy and see men as the enemy with the family and marriage as being the two key institutions in patriarchal society. This is because men benefit from women's unpaid domestic labour and dominate women through domestic violence

They argue that the family system must be abolished and the only way to do this is through separatism and what Greer calls matrilocal households as an alternative to the nuclear family

However, liberal feminists say they fail to recognise that women's position within the family has improved massively with for example the 1991 Marital **** Act. They also say not everyone can be lesbian because of their hetereosexual attractions

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Feminist perspectives on the family

4. Difference feminism

They argue that we can not generalise about women's experiences as they can differ due to ethnicity, sexuality, class etc. For example, by regarding the family purely negatively white feminists neglect the fact that black feminists see the black family as a source of support and a form of resistance to racism

However, other feminists criticise them and say there are more similarities than differences with women's experiences. For example, they all face a risk of low pay, domestic violence etc

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Personal life perspective on families

These sociologists reject the structural view of the other perspectives as they ignore the fact we have some choice in creating our family relationships. They say that in order to understand the family today we must focus on the meanings its members give to their relationships rather than the family's supposed functions

The sociology of personal life argues that to understand families we must start from the point of view of the individual concerned and the meanings they give to their relationships from a bottom up approach. This contrasts with Marxism, Functionalism and Feminism who all take a structuralist top down approach

They also take a wider view of relationships and by focusing on people's meanings they draw attention to unconventional relationships. This could be fictive kin such as close friends who you call auntie, relationships with friends who are like a sister to you and relationships with pets like dogs being part of the family

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Personal life perspective on families

These raise questions about what counts as family from the point of view of the individuals involved. In their research about donor conceived children Nordqvist & 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 as some defined being a mum as the time, love and effort she put into raising her child. However, difficult feelings could flare up for a non genetic parent if someone said that their child looked like them

However, the personal life perspective can be accused of taking too broad a view by ignoring what is special about relationships that are based on blood and marriage

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