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Functionalism vs Marxism : A Family Case Study

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The definition of a family is one still being argued over by sociologists. However, for the purposes of this essay, I have chosen the broad definition of family as “a group of people who live together” The family chosen for this examination it will be argued, fit the functionalist view of the family. In order to demonstrate this, the functionalist view of the family will first be outlined.

According to functionalist theory, the existence of a particular institution is evidence for its necessity to society. Based on a study of 250 societies Murdock concluded that the nuclear family, i.e. a family consisting of a father, mother and their children, is the universal human grouping. Moreover, he also stated that this grouping satisfies both the physical and psychological needs of the members which could not be met by other societal structures. The family unit is thereby viewed by functionalists as essential to the welfare of the individuals.

Marxist theory, on the other hand, takes a negative look at the family. Seeing it as an exploitive system developed by ruling classes in order to serve the needs of a capitalist nation. It therefore sees the existence of the nuclear family as being determined by the economy. Men of the family are exploited at work into serving the ruling class, and women, at home by doing domestic work for no pay. The family propagates this inequality since children, on seeing their parents fulfil these roles are socialised into believing that such exploitation is to be expected. Moreover it provides a means by which men may vent the frustrations of working class life and feel they have power and control thereby avoiding revolt in the workplace.

As stated at the start of this essay, the family under examination seems to best fit functionalist theory. The Smith family are the ideal nuclear family, consisting of a male and female married couple and their two children. The smith family live in the London suburbs and are white and middle class. When the children were young the mother stopped working in order to adopt the role of primary caregiver, thereby using her tiem and energy to provide for their children?s needs. At the same time the father fulfilled the role of breadwinner and ensured that the children and his wife were well cared for when it came to physical and material wellbeing. When the came of age the father later financed the children?s private education, thus ensuring that the children were educated and socialised in the best possible way.

This family thereby fits best to a functionalist theory. However, this may be because of the focus of the two theories. Functionalist theory was developed through work on white, middle class families, like the Smith family. The inequalities facing working class families as stated by Marxism are not applicable in this situation since the Smith family are if anything, part of the oppressive ruling class which Marxist theory states force the creation of family units.

In conclusion, although on the surface the Smith family seem ideal candidates for a functionalist theory tgat is only because the range of families observed by functionalist theorists was narrow. Although the Smith family may provide physical and psychological support to each other this does not mean that the existence of the family is born out of this. The functionalists have created a chicken and egg problem. What came first the family or the functions fulfilled by the family? Correlations can not be taken as evidence. Therefore even thought the patterns shown by the Smith family correlate with functionalist theory it is too large a jump to say that this means functionalist theory applies to this family.

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