Theories of the Family

Functionalist Perspective

Functions of Family: family performs beneficial functions for wider society as well as individual members 

Murdock: 4 functions of family: Murdock argues that the nuclear family provides 4 essential functions for society and its members

  • Stable satisfaction of sex drive- monogomous marriage prevents sexual 'free-for-all' 
  • Reproduction of next generation- without offspring, society would cease to exist
  • Socialisation of Young- socialises children into norms and values which help members inteagrate into adult society
  • Satisfaction of members ecocnomic needs- provides food and shelter

Parsons Functional Fit Theory: range of functions family performs depends of society its in. Also determines family structure

  • Three generational extended family- found in pre-industrial society
  • Two generational nuclear family- found in modern industrial society


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Functionalist Perspective II

The nuclear family fits the 2 key needs of modern society:

  • Geographical mobility- industrys appear and disappear quick, easier for small 2 generational families to move around 
  • Social Mobility- societal status is achieved, so adult sons often overtake status of father. Breaking away to set up nuclear family spares the status conflict that would occur

Two Irreducible Functions: nuclear family left with 2 essential functions:

  • Primary Socialisation- equipping next gen. with skills and values
  • Stabalisation of adult personalities- enabling adults to relax and release tension, returning to workplace to perform roles efficiantly 

Segregated conjugal roles: Parsons deistinguished male 'bread-winner' role and female' nurturing' role. Sees gender division in family based on biology

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New Right Perspective

Has conservative view of family:

  • A biologically based division of labour- division between male breadwinner and female nurturer as natural and biologically determined, believe a nuclear family with segregated conjugal roles is best to socialise children in


  • Families should be self-reliant- reliance to state = dependancy culture, undermines traditional gender roles and produces family breakdown
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Marxist Perspective

Functions of Family: family is an oppresive institution that performs functions to benefit capitalism

  • Passing on wealth-   Engles: as private property became important, bourgoisie men had to pass onto sons (led to monogomous marriage). Also meant woman becoming private property of man, controlled sexuality to ensure were his sons
  • Ideological functions- Zaretsky: there is a cult of 'private life'- we can only gain fulfilment through family life, this distracts from exploitation
  • Unit of Consumption- family is important market of consumer goods and therfore enables capitalist to make profits
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Feminist Perspectives

Liberal Feminists: argue gender inequality is slowly being reduced through legal reforms and policy changes, challenging sterotypes, and changing attitues 

Marxist Feminists: argue capitalism is main cause of womens oppresion in family

  • reproduces the labour force
  • absorbing mens anger
  • reserve army of cheap labour

Radical Feminists: argue patriarchy is main cause of womens oppresion. Marriage and family are key patriarchal institutions

  • men benefit from womens unpaid domestic and sexual services
  • men dominate women through violence or threat of it 

Difference Feminists: not all women share same oppresive experince, different ethnicities, class etc 

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Personal Life Perspective

To understand families, we must look at the meanings individual members give to relationships. By focusing on peoples meanings PLP draws attention to other relationships that wouldnt be traditional nuclear families (by blood etc)

Donor-concieved children: these relatiobships raise questions about what 'counts' as family

Nordqvist and Smarts research on donor-concieved children found parents emphasised importance of social relationships over genetic ones in defining 'family'

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