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Evaluate the functionalist theory of the family

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In this essay, I intend to analyse some of the theories behind the functionalist perspective of the family, it is my intention to look at two main theorists in this field, Murdock and Parsons. I to analyse their theories and give objective argument for the pros and cons of the functionalist family. I intend to break this down by looking at the theorists separately and then looking at arguments against the functionalist family.

Sociology, second edition by Giddens 1993, states that functionalism is a theoretical perspective based on the notion that social events can be explained in functions they perform, that is the contribution they make to the continuity of society. Breaking this down further, Murdock (1949) states that the definition of the family is “a social group, characterised by common residents, economic co-operation and reproduction, it includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain as socially approved sexual relationship and one or more children are own or adopted of the sexually cohabiting adults”.

The structures of the family varies from society to society, the smallest family group is the nuclear family, and consists of a husband and wife, and the immature offspring , units larger than the nuclear family are known as extended families, and can be seen as extensions of the nuclear family. This can have vertical extensions, for example, older members of the family living in the same household. A grandmother or grandfather, and also can have horizontal extensions, an example of this would be a brother-in-law or sister-in-law of the spouses living in the same house. But functionalists felt that the nuclear family was most adapted to the functionalist theory, as it is insular and mobile therefore aiding society, by keeping up with economic movement, but in the process becoming detached from the extended family support.

Murdoch carried out an analysis of the 250 societies and felt that the family carried out for basic functions. In all societies, these were sexual, reproductive, economic and educational functions. He felt that these were all linked. Without sex and reproduction there would be no procreation, there would be no members of society to create an economy therefore not providing an economic function, for example, the provision and preparation of food, and without education there would be no culture. He felt that the society without culture couldn’t function. The functionalist point of view of the family structure was bound together by all aspects of the four main functions. The husband and wife have a right to sexual access together, abiding by the rules of the society, they are in, by indulging in sexual gratification they will keep the relationship monogamous, keeping the spouses of the unit together by their emotional and physical ties. By doing this it will contain sexual activity, to the family group and prevent disruptive effects on social order, this then provides both control and expression of sexual drives.

Murdoch went on further to say that like sex, the economic function of the family is more readily achieved by persons living together. Much emphasis is put upon the division of labour within the family group. Murdoch explained this by saying that there were certain specialisations carried out in the family, he said that in hunting tribes. The male would catch and kill game, and his wife will cook and skin the game. He felt that the economic co-operation between the spouses made a closer bond between the couple, and also aided the society as a whole. Murdoch felt that no society had found an adequate substitute for the nuclear family, to which it might be able to excel these functions, and he felt that it is highly doubtful that any society will succeed in such an attempt. Morgan (1975), argued that Murdoch’s view of the family is a remarkably harmonious institution. Husband and wife have an integrated division of labour and a good time in bed (social theory and the family, Rutledge, and Keegan Paul London)

Parsons (1959 1965), concentrated his study on families in America’s middle-class society. It was felt that he had a more general view of the family group, he felt that Americans family retains two basic irreducible functions, which are common to the family in all societies. These come under the heading of primary socialisation of the children and stabilisation of the adults. Primary socialisation refers to the early years of childhood and takes place mainly within the family, secondary socialisation takes place in later formative years, when outside influence are exerted such as peer groups and schools.

Parsons said there were two basic processes involved in primary socialisation. These are the internalisation of the society’s culture and the structuring of personality. He felt that unless culture is internalised society would cease to exist in tears fell that without shared norms and values, culture would not be possible, because culture is internalised it becomes part of the person, he felt in the case of American middle-class families personality ties was shaped in terms of independence and achievement motivation, which are two main aspects of American culture. Parsons felt that families were essential for the purpose of creating human personalities. He defined the family group as factories, as he felt that primary socialisation could only be acquired with warmth, security and mutual support, and this could only be achieved within the family group. Once the personality had been stabilised it was possible for the next basic function to begin. The second basic function of the family is to put the onus on marriage to stabilise the strains and stresses of life. This gives emotional support to the family group, as it does not have the emotional support from extended family. Hence the couple looking each other for support.

The functionalists give a clear view of the family roles, these roles are clarified, both within the family group and also society itself. Showing the male as the bread winner, and the wife as a homemaker and bearer of children. The functionalist theory is based on the view that all members are working towards the same goal, and all perceived society in the same way. And that the aim to sustain stability and continuity are essential basic needs. As society is always changing, causes conflict, which is dysfunctional because it is destabilising. The functionalist’s felt the structure of the family is based on the view that a man will work and the wife will stay at home. Society needs men to contribute to the economy and society needs and women being happy to stay at home and willing to fulfil a servicing role for the man, Parsons did focus on the importance of women’s domestic role, this did find favour with some feminists, but as a whole this is still seen as a patriarchal society by feminists.

The functionalist theory on the family presumes that families are good for all members. It is fair to say that the reality, for some is totally different. It also does not take into account, and ever shifting society, where same-sex couples cohabit and marriage is occurring later in life, also the fact that women have taken on a greater role in society, working equal hours as men. All these deviations from the functionalist norm are not taken into account, as Morgan 1975 states. “There are no classes, no religions, ethnic or status groups, no community’s in Parsons analysis of the family, for example, Parsons failed to explore possible differences between middle and working class families or different family structures in ethnic minority communities.

The functionalist view of the family is a view, where the structure of the family is solid but mobile. With the ever-changing attitudes of the general public too lone parents, same gender relationships. The core family group is not as prevalent as in the past. Functionalist ideas of a single idealist standpoint, where support is given by heterosexual couples may be moving towards being less representative of society as a whole. With the ever-increasing divorce rates, It may be said that by functionalist standards. Our society is in a serious state of decline, the ideal view of the functionalist family has to change with the society, as many people now remarry. Therefore, extending the nuclear family, losing some of its mobility, thus making the family unit less able to aid in economic stability.

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