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Sociology - families and households

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1573 words Published: 26th Jun 2015

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Functionalism is a structuralist theory. This means it sees the individual as less important as the social structure of society. It is a ‘top down’ theory. The family can be defined as an intimate domestic group composed of people related to each other by blood, sexual relations and legal ties. When assessing how useful functionalism is when looking at the family, other views/perspectives need to be taken into account before making an overall conclusion. Views from Talcott Parsons, George Murdock, Ann Oakley, Edmund Leach, R.D Laing, David Cooper and Friedrich Engels will be taken into account as well as perspectives from Marxism, feminism, family diversity and radical psychiatrists. This will help draw the final conclusion.

Functionalist sociologists suggest that the nuclear family is the norm in modern day industrial societies.

George Peter Murdock (1949) supports the idea of functionalism. After analysing 250 societies, Murdock argues that the family performs four basic functions; sexual, reproductive, economic and educational. These are the essentials for social life, since without sexual and reproductive functions there would be no members of society, without economic functions life would cease, and without education there would be no culture. Human society without culture could not function. Clearly, the family cannot perform these functions exclusively. However, it makes important contributions to them all and no other institution has yet been devised to match its efficiency in this respect. A weakness of Murdock’s view is that some sociologists may find his description of the family almost too good to be true. Some of his views on harmony and integration are not shared be other researchers. He also does not examine alternatives to the family, not considering whether its functions could be carried out by other social institutions. Murdock is criticised for being Euro-centric, as he is only concerned about the Western families. However, he is supported by anthropologists; Morris (1968) said the family was a result of biology and culture over generations (socio-biology). This could be a strength as it shows some researchers have the same view.

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Talcott Parsons bases his ideas on the family in modern American society. However, despite this his ideas have more general application since he claims the American family has two ‘basic and irreducible’ functions which are common to the family in all societies, unlike Murdock who argued there were four. These were, the primary socialization of children, where culture is learned and accepted by children so they know the norms and values that allow society to exist. Secondly the stabilization of adult personalities, which is where a marriage relationship and emotional security a couple provide for each other keeps a personality stable, and acts as a counterweight to everyday stresses and strains that can make a personality unstable. This process is otherwise known as the ‘warm bath’ theory, where the family provide a relaxing environment for the male worker to immerse himself in after a hard day at work. A criticism of Parsons view would be that he idealises the family, much like Murdock, with his view of well adjusted children and sympathetic spouses caring for each others every need, when in reality not all families are like this. Also Parsons fails to explore the differences between working/middle class families, as his ideas are generally based on the American middle class family. Parsons perspective supports that of functionalism, that the nuclear family is the norm in society.

Ann Oakley has described the typical or ‘conventional’ family. She says conventional families are nuclear families composed of legally married couples, voluntarily choosing the parenthood of one or more children. This shows support for functionalism. Leach (1967) has called this the ‘cereal packet image of the family’. This image of a happily married couple with two children is prominent in advertising and the ‘family sized’ packets of cereal and other products are aimed at this group.

The family is functional for both its members and society as a whole. Increasingly this picture of the family is coming under strong criticism. Some observers are suggesting that on balance, the family may well be dysfunctional both for society and its individual members. This criticism has mainly been directed at the family in Western industrial society.

The Marxist view on the family opposes that of the functionalists. It is seen to challenge the idea that the family is universal or natural, but instead that it is human creation; a social invention that has served a specific economic purpose. The Marxist theory on the family emerged from the work of Friedrich Engels. It is argued by Marxists that the working-class extended family has been deliberately discouraged by the capitalist ruling class, because its emphasis on a mutual support system and collective action encourages its members to be aware of their social class position. It is believed that the nuclear family under capitalist law in an ‘anti-social’ family. It labels all other forms of family life as inferior and abnormal. However, a weakness of the Marxist view is that there is a tendency to talk about ‘the family’ in capitalist society without regard to possible variations in family life between social classes.

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Family diversity supports the fact that the ‘conventional family’ no longer makes up the majority of households or families. For example, women no longer aspire exclusively to romantic love, marriage and children. There are now acceptable alternative life styles some people prefer, such as pre-marital sex, serial monogamy, cohabitation, single-sex relationships, childlessness etc. Men’s roles too are no longer clear in a postmodern society, and the resulting ‘crisis of masculinity’ has lead to man redefining both their sexuality and family commitments. Others disagree with this view. They argue that family diversity is exaggerated, and that the basic features of family life have remained largely unchanged for the majority of the population. Nuclear families are still very common – but alternate types of family are steadily increasing.

When looking at a critical view of the family, radical psychiatry mat be taken into account. Edmund Leach supported the idea in the family there is too much emotional pressure on each individual to live up to expectations. R.D Laing associated schizophrenia with the emotional pressure and anxiety of the nuclear family. David Cooper suggested the personality of the individual is controlled by the family, forcing them to conform to the rules of both the family, forcing them to conform to the rules of both the family and wider society. These three radical researchers all agree that the family is a dangerous place and mental illness could be the result of pressures laid down to the individual. From this angle it can be seen that the family has a negative, this view does not agree with the view of functionalism.

Friedrich Engels acknowledges that the position of women within the family is an important aspect of what the Marxists see as its harmful effects. However, he emphasizes the relationship between family and capitalism, and is less concerned with its effects on women. Feminism has broken itself down into different perspectives, Marxist feminists, liberal feminists and radical feminists. Friedrich Engels speaks for the Marxist feminist view. Liberal feminists believe that both sexes contribute to domestic chores in an atmosphere of mutual support and hegemony, and there is an equal division of labour. Radical feminist beliefs are that the nuclear family is based upon male power and serves to support that. Male power is often expressed in the home as domestic violence. It is seen that patriarchy is transhistorical; it is ever present in all societies and cultures. A weakness is that feminists often do not take into account the possible differences in family life, for example, social classes, ethnic groups, heterosexual and gay families etc. They just seem to assume every family is a nuclear family, so may exaggerate the effect of families to women. They therefore ignore the possibility of women fighting back against exploitation and do not see the positive side to the family.

Now that perspectives and ideas criticising and supporting functionalism have been illustrated. A conclusion can be made. If looking at Murdock and Parsons it can be seen that they both tend to only take into account Western societies, and tend to generalise. Apart from that they both have strong, similar ideas on what the family is. Oakley and Leach support their ideas on the nuclear family being the majority of society. However, although the argument supporting functionalism is sound, other views need to be taken into perspective. For example Marxism, questioning the idea of a universal/natural family. Family diversity offering different options to how people choose to live, feminists saying the family exploits women and radical psychiatry claiming the family is a dangerous place and causes mental illness


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