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The Family In The Modern Society Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2384 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The family is a diverse topic with many different observations and conclusions as to its role and purpose in society. Many sociologists are of the opinion that the family is a central and necessary institution in modern society.

Society has many family units involved in its fluctuations; changes in different societies may vary greatly, due to the vast differences between them which include culture, religion, and the territorial area they occupy.

There are many different theoretical explanations for the family in modern society, the two covered in this essay are, the Feminist explanation for the family, and the Functionalist explanation.

By definition functionalism is the carrying out of an action in terms of its consequences, i.e. its contribution to maintaining stability. Feminism however, is a social movement combining theory with political practice, and seeking to achieve equality between both men and women.

In many ways the family is seen as the ‘cornerstone’ of society, supporting and reinforcing social organisation and enabling control of the population. As modernity has progressed the family has shown its ability to evolve by meeting the changing needs of society and family members.

There is however a ‘dark side’ to family life, family ideology conveys the family as a safe private place, however many sociologists have studied the family from other aspects, such as being the centre location for oppression, violence and abuse directed mainly towards women and children.

The functionalist explanation for the family in modern society suggests that the family is the primary source of childhood socialization and is the mechanism for the stabilisation of adult personalities; therefore without this family structure disorganisation could occur.

The family therefore ‘fits’ into other parts of the social system as it enables learning and organisation of behaviours which are beneficial to society, and support the current political and economic views in order to maintain a reliance on the welfare state.

When regarding family types functionalists prefer the ideology stemming from the emergence of the nuclear family, as they see it as most suited to the needs of industrial society, with the father and mother figure at the helm of the family, which consists purely of the biological mother, father and any children that may have been conceived. This is a very traditionalist view of the family especially in modern society, where there are increasing numbers of single parent families and extended families.

Murdock (1949) claimed that the nuclear family was universal and is so useful to society that its appearance is inevitable. Many Functionalists are of the opinion that the family is the heart of society, it ensures the survival of society due to the functions that it contributes.

The functionalist explanation views socialisation as purely a one way process, and idealises family life to the ‘universal’ nuclear family, whereas post modernists say there is no such thing as the universal family, as the family is a centre of diversity and choice, so there is no one particular family structure as all vary in different ways.

Murdock (1949) held the functionalist view of the family and claimed that the family is universal due to it fulfilling essential societal functions; these are; sexual, reproductive, economic and educational.

Parsons (1959) also held this functionalist view of the family, and explained that the family makes a “sexual, reproductive, economic and educational contribution to the maintenance of society”.

Parsons and Bales (1956) said that “the family’s two main functions are primary socialisation and personality stabilisation.”

They also argued that the family has four main functions; firstly, to be the primary agent of socialisation. Secondly, to regulate sexual activity. Thirdly to maintain social placement. And finally, to provide material and emotional security to other members of the family.

For Parsons and Bales (1955) the family is the ‘backbone of society’.

However, the functionalist view of the family fails to recognise familiar variations, for example; class, ethnicity, religion and sexuality. These are all important factors in family structure. Different religions believe that the people within the family unit have different roles to play and in comparison to the more western style nuclear family, they may have vertically extended families, the United Kingdom is culturally diverse due to increased immigration and this has a large impact on family’s and therefore impacts on the beliefs of the society, these factors should not be ignored as they are now becoming increasingly more important as the United Kingdom does not just have one universal family type.

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This functionalist view is becoming decreasingly important to our understanding of the family as a social group, because the theoretical basis behind it is being undermined by the facts. Modern society in western civilization has undergone massive changes, and family structures are increasingly changing, although functionalists may be correct in some aspects of their theoretical explanations of the family, they are not throughout. Statistics have shown massive changes in family structures in the UK which will change again over time, most probably threatening the functionalist view of the nuclear family being the most dominant and useful family type.

Focus on Families (UK), ONS (2007), show that there are increasing numbers of differing family structures. 56% of the UK family structures consist of ‘Married, (both parents)’, 26% show ‘lone parents’, 7% show ‘married, (step family)’, 6% show ‘cohabiting (birth parents)’, and 5% show ‘cohabiting (step family)’.

These figures show that there are increasing numbers of single parent families and also extended families, these more complicated family units are seemingly ignored by the functionalist view, yet are becoming a more important aspect of modern society, and therefore for the functionalist view to truly contribute to our understanding of modern society, then it should include these family units also, as it is becoming increasingly apparent that the nuclear family is becoming less ‘universal’. The functionalist view also ignores the dysfunctional family and its outcomes and impacts on society.

Other agencies have taken over some of the functions that traditionally belonged to the family, there is an increasing emergence of clubs and youth groups to help support and encourage children in ways which the changes of society means that the family may no longer be able to cope with due to the adults in the household being encouraged to work more. Schools are also adapting and offering children extra-curricular activities.

The functionalist view does not focus on family practical’s, it may not be practical for certain families to have a nuclear family style, which is why there is an increasing emergence of more diverse family styles in Britain.

The other theoretical explanation for the family in modern society is the feminist explanation, the feminist view and explanation of the family has more perspectives than the functionalist as the feminist beliefs split into three categories, most however emphasise the family as a site and source of oppression.

The first division of feminist theory of the family is radical feminists, they see the family as maintaining an important role in male power. Valerie Bryson (1992), states that all radical feminism sees the ‘oppression of women as the most fundamental and universal form of domination’. They believe that men have immersed themselves so deeply in technology that there is no feminine alternative.

The second division is liberal feminists, who hold an ideology that women will transform society through their personal interactions with the opposite sex. They do not demand privileges for women, just that they receive equal consideration and that there should be no bias because of sexual orientation, liberal feminists seek to provide economic equality, they don’t believe it is right for men to earn more money than women based purely on their sex.

The third division is marxist-feminist. Marxists such as Engels and Zaretsky acknowledge the exploitation of women in family life and marriage, however they emphasise the relationship between the family and capitalism, rather than the effects that the family has on women.

Social feminists see the domestic division of labour as an outcome of industrial capitalism.

A domestic division of labour could have existed prior to industrialisation, but it seems clear that capitalist production brought about a much sharper distinction, resulting in the crystallisation of ‘male spheres’ and ‘female spheres’, and therefore the emergence of power relationships.

However there is no variation within the family life due to social class, religion, ethnicity or sexuality.

Feminists generally believe that there are unequal power relationships that exist within many families, due to the fact that not only do women tend to shoulder concrete tasks such as cleaning and child care, they also invest large amounts of emotional labour in maintaining personal relationships. (Duncombe and Marsden 1993)

Barrie Thorne (1982) argued that four main themes are central to the feminist explanation for the family in modern society.

The first being the structure and functioning of the family, many feminists argue against the nuclear family as they see it as the most oppressive.

The second sees the family as an area for analysis, as different conclusions may be formed at different points due to changes in the views of society.

Thirdly, different family members experience life in different ways, male and female experiences are vastly different as the female wife, may experience oppression, whereas the male ‘breadwinner’ may experience family life as relaxing and letting the mother figure take over and look after the family both emotionally and physically.

Finally, feminists question the assumption that the family should be thought of as a private sphere, as there can be many different influences on the family which may cause dysfunction.

The feminist perspective considers that families in western societies are not universal, due to legal, political and economic changes it is now easier for different family structures to thrive, there has been over the last 40 years. Women now have increasingly more rights which allow them to make independent decisions about the way in which they live. The majority of modern society has accepted that women should be treated equally and laws are now much more in women’s favour.

Statistically, the family status of women in the UK in 1996 (% of all women aged 16 and over), 23% of women are single, 54% are married, 4% are cohabiting, 8% are divorced and 12% are widowed. (source: Therborn, 2004, p. 203.)

Considering that all ages are considered (16 and over) these statistics may be influenced more towards marriage and widows due to the fact that the UK has an aging population, taking this into consideration it seems that more women are choosing to be single than would have been 40 years ago, which would support the feminist ideas that women may not choose to be oppressed by having a family and are choosing to become independent, work and provide for themselves. This could be due to the fact that conflict arises in family life which the women have to deal with which creates problems in their life which they would not experience if they were not in a male dominated family environment.

Ann Oakley (1982) defines these, and suggests that women experience four different areas of conflict in family life:

Firstly; The sexual division of labour means that women are expected to be responsible for domestic work and childcare, which means that women become economically

dependent on men and have limited access to money that they see as their own.

Secondly; Conflict arises over the different emotional needs of men and women. Women are expected to deal with the frustrations and anger of husbands and children but

often have no one to whom they can turn themselves (research suggests that women undertake a large amount of ’emotion work’ within the family).

Thirdly; Economic and physical differences in power between husbands and wives mean that women can experience lack of control over financial resources, an inability to

engage in social activities and even physical violence from their husbands.

Fourthly; Male control of sexuality and fertility means that men feel their needs to be more important. Women are expected to ‘please’ their husbands, and give in

to their sexual demands, and care for their children.

The feminist view is becoming more influential in its importance of their contribution to our understanding of modern society, as unlike the functionalist view, it considers different family structures and focuses on the current situation rather than on traditionalist views of the family and society.

Marxist (socialist) and functionalist theories of the family look at the relationships between family and society whereas the feminist view of the family study relationships. How they are shaped by sexuality internally, and also argue that the family is the main way in which women are oppressed.

Morgan (1975) criticised both the functionalist and Marxist approaches; both ‘presuppose a traditional model of the nuclear family where there is a married couple with children, where the husband is the breadwinner and where the wife stays at home to deal with the housework’.

(need a conclusion not too sure what to write though as feel I have included it?? Any help mum)


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