Theories of the Family

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  • Created on: 31-05-19 14:58

The functionalist perspective

Functionalists see society as based on a value consensus - a shared set of norms and values (or culture). This shared culture enables members of society to co-operate harmoniously to meet society's needs and to achieve their common goals

The organic analogy:

Functionalists see society as being like a biological organism (such as the human body):

  • The body is a system made up of different parts (cells, organs etc.) that function together to meet its needs and maintain it. 
  • Society is a system made up of different but interdependent parts or sub-systems, such as institutions like the education system, the economy, religion, the state etc.
  • The function of any part is the contribution it makes to maintaining the social system as a whole.

The functions of the family For functionalists, the family plays a vital role in maintaining the social system as whole, as well as meeting the needs of other sub-systems such as the economy. Functionalists take a positive view of the family, seeing it as performig beneficial functions both for wider society and for all its individual members. However, they disagree to some extent about what these functions are:

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The functionalist perspective

Murdock: four functions of the family

G.P. Murdock argues that the nuclear family performs four essential functions for society and for its members:

  • Stable satisfaction of the sex drive with the same marital partner. This prevents the social disruption that would be caused by a sexual 'free-for-all'.
  • Reproduction of the next generation, without which society would cease to exist.
  • Socialisation of the young into society's norms and values enables new members to integrate into society.
  • Satisfaction of members' economic needs - e.g. providing food and shelter. In pre-industrial societies, the family is a unit of production (working together), but in modern societies it has become a unit of consumption only. 

Practicality and universality By performing these functions, the nuclear family helps to maintain social stability. For Murdock, the 'sheer practicality' of the nuclear family as a way of meeting these needs explains why it is universal - found in all human societies. 

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The functionalist perspective

Parsons' 'functional fit' theory

Parsons' argues that the kinds and range of functions that the family performs depend on the type of society in which it is found. This also determines what kind of structure the family will have. Parsons identifies two types of family structure:

  • The three-generational extended family, found in pre-industrial society.
  • The two-generational extended family, found in modern industrial society.

The extended family was multi-functional - it was a unit of both production and of consumption, e.g. all members worked the land together, and it often performed welfare, military, religious or other functions.

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The functionalist perspective

The nuclear family fits the two key needs of modern industrial society:

  • Geographical mobility Industries constantly spring up and decline in different places. It is easier for the compact two-generational nuclear family to move to where the jobs are.
  • Social mobility Because status in industrial society is achieved not ascribed, adult sons can now achieve a higher status than their fathers. Breaking away to set up their own nuclear family unit removes the status conflict that would result if they stayed. 

Two irreducible functions The nuclear family is now left with only two 'irreducible' or essential functions:

  • Primary socialisation of the young, equipping the next generation with basic skills and society's values.
  • Stabilisation of adult personalities, enabling adults to relax and release tensions so that they can return to the workplace and perform their roles efficiently.

Segregated conjugal roles Parsons distinguishes between the male instrumental role and the female expressive role. He sees the gender division of labour within the family as biologically based. For example, women give birth and this is why they're suited to the expressive role.

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The New Right perspective

This is a political rather than a sociological perspective which has had considerable influence on government policies in Britain and elsewhere. It is a conservative view of the family based on the following assumptions:

  • A biologically based division of labour  Like functionalists, the New Right see the division of labour in the family between a male breadwinner and a female homemaker as natural and biologically determined. Similarly, they believe that a nuclear family with segregated conjugal roles is the best place in which to socialise children.
  • Families should be self-reliant Reliance on state welfare leads to a dependency culture, undermines traditional gender roles and produces family breakdown and lone parent families. Lack of a male role model for boys results in social problems and delinquency. 
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The Marxist perspective

Marxism is a conflict view of society. It sees modern capitalist society as divided into two classes:

  • The capitalist class (or bourgeoisie), who own the means of production (the factories, land etc.)
  • The working class (or proletariat), who own only their labour, which they are forced to sell to the capitalists in return for wages. This enables the capitalist employer to exploit the working class in order to produce profit. 
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The Marxist perspective

The functions of the family Marxists see all institutions in capitalist society as contributing to the maintenance of exploitation. The family is seen as an oppressive institution that performs several important functions for capitalism:

Passing on wealth Engels argues that, as private property became more important, men who controlled it needed to ensure they could pass it to their own sons and this led to monogamous marriage. But this also meant the woman becoming the private property of her husband, who controlled her sexuality to ensure he was the father of her children. 

Ideological functions Zaretsky argues that there is a 'cult of private life' - the belief that we can only gain fulfilment from family life - and this distracts attention from exploitation. 

Unit of consumption Capitalism needs consumers to buy its products. The family is an important market for consumer goods and therefore enables capitalists to make profits. 

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Feminist perspectives

Feminism too is a conflict view that sees the family as oppressing women. There are several different types of feminism:

1. Liberal feminists argue that gender inequality is gradually being overcome through legal reforms and policy changes (such as equal pay), challenging stereotypes and changing people's attitudes and socialisation. This is a 'march of progress' view - e.g. the 'new man' is becoming more widespread.

2. Marxist feminists argue that capitalism is the main cause of women's oppression in the family and this performs several functions for capitalism:

  • Reproducing the labour force Women socialise the next generation of workers and service the current one, for free. 
  • Absorbing men's anger that would otherwise be directed at capitalism. Wives soak up their husbands' frustration that comes from being exploited at work.
  • A reserve army of cheap labour. When not needed, women workers return to their domestic role.

Marxist feminists argue that womens oppression in the family is linked to exploitation of the working class. Therefore the family must be abolished at the same time as capitalism.

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Feminist perspectives

3. Radical feminists argue that patriarchy (male domination) is the main cause of women's oppression. The family and marriage are key patriachal institutions. 

  • Men benefit from women's unpaid domestic labour and sexual services.
  • Men dominate women through violence or the threat of it.

For radical feminists, the patriachal system must be overturned and the family abolished. Some radical feminists believe in 'political lesbianism' and complete separatism from men. 

4. Difference feminism argues that not all women share the same experiences of oppression - women of different ethnicities, class backgrounds etc may have different experiences of the family. 

For example, by regarding the family solely as a source of oppression, white feminists neglect black women's experience of racism. Many black feminists view the black family positively as a source of support in a racist society. 

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The personal life perspective

PLP takes a 'bottom up' approach to understand families, we must look at the meanings individual family members give to their relationships. This contrasts with functionalism, Marxism and feminism, which take a 'top down', structural approach.

By focusing on people's meanings, PLP draws attention to a range of other personal relationships that are important to people even though they may not be conventionally defined as (blood or marriage) 'family'. 

These include all kinds of relationships that individuals see as significant and that give them a sense of relatedness, such as relationships with same-sex 'chosen families', fictive kin, friends, dead relatives, even pets.

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The personal life perspective

Donor-concieved children:

These relationships raise questions about what counts as family from the viewpoint of the individuals involved.

Nordqvist and Smart's research on donor-concieved children found that parents often emphasised the importance of social relationships over genetic ones in defining 'family'.

  • Where couples knew their donor, they had to resolve questions about whether he or she counted as family. 
  • Lesbian couples were concerned the sperm donor might be treated as the 'real' second parent. 
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