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Outline and Evaluate Functionalist Views of the Role of the Family in Society

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Functionalism is a structuralist theory; this meaning that it sees social structure (the social organisation of society) as more important than individuals. Functionalist sociologists believe that people have a range of basic needs that must be met if society is to run smoothly. Different groups and individuals in society are important because they perform certain functions which meet society’s needs. Functionalism supports the family in nearly every way, to the support it offers to the next generation and the way it teaches them the four functions they need to survive. George Peter Murdock described the family as being “a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It contains adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults.” Therefore Murdock’s definition is based on the nuclear family – a stereotypical two-generation family made up of a heterosexual couple with dependent offspring. This definition was popular with right-wing sociologists who suggested that this is the ideal type of family to which people should aspire.

Murdock suggests the family provides four main functions that help society and its individual members. Firstly he says the family provides the sexual function, this means married adults enjoy a healthy sex life preventing from social distributions such as rape. Society can run much more smoothly from this as this means less rape crime. Secondly he says the family provide the reproductive function, producing the next generation for society. Society can benefit from this as they can take the next generation and fit them into the jobs that need filling, without any children society couldn’t survive at all. Everyone in society has a role to fulfil. Doing these makes society work effectively meaning a re – function. Next Murdock explains the family also provides the function of economic provision. The family provide a shelter, food, financial support and comfort for the sick.

Without the family providing this function I don’t believe society would survive as who else would be able to provide the support they already do. Society will benefit from this as people are happy as they are getting the help they need to work hard and poverty can be stopped. Finally the last function he describes is the function of education. The family offer primary socialisations where children are taught the norms and values of today’s society. They teach them how to behave in a suitable way, so they can fit into societies functions. Everyone from this learns the same norms and values meaning society won’t go into a state of chaos. Murdock believes the family can stop the next generation from performing any defiant acts as they are teaching them the norms in which they should try to conform too so they can fit into today’s society. Murdock argued also that “the nuclear family is a universal social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex forms are compounded, it exists as a unique and strongly functional group in every known society”.

However it is argued that several of the social groupings which would not be defined as families under Murdock’s definition might nevertheless be reasonably described as families. An example of these families do not fit into Murdock’s definition are the ones that Kathleen Gough found in her article “Is the Family universal? – The Nayar Case” (1968). She concluded that the Nayar were a highly unusual example, undermining Murdock’s definition of the family supposedly being universal, as she found that the fathers were excluded from residential and socialising units. Furthermore, Murdock’s definition is not suitable for the modern day society we live in today as not all families have to produce or want offspring, such as same sex couples. The role of the family in society has changed; it once used to be to produce offspring so that they can work in the factories and get money for the family so that food can be bought. Now, however, child law has been outlawed in a series of Acts of Parliament starting in 1833 with the Factories Act, which required compulsory schooling and the cleanliness of the workplace. Fourteen years later the Ten Hour Act was passed, limiting the number of hours worked by thirteen to eighteen year olds to ten hours a day.

Moreover, Murdock’s definition is also criticised, as it is argued that children can be reared and socialised effectively in lone parent families and many would argue that single sex couples also can rear and socialise children effectively although others would dispute this. Talcott Parsons (1965) was a functionalist sociologist who attempted to trace the historical development of the family and explain why the nuclear family had become so dominant. Parsons argued that there are two basic irreducible functions of the family. These are Primary socialisation and the stabilisation of the adult personalities, Primary socialisation is the process through which the children are taught and learn to accept the norms and values of society. Primary socialisation is important as it teaches us how to relate to others, language and customs and it is the foundation upon which all later learning rests. Secondly, the stabilisation of the adult personalities is all about the family giving the adult offspring emotional support necessary to cope with the stresses of everyday life.

Parsons also differentiated between the roles and functions performed by husband and wife, assuming that these differences are based on biological differences and, therefore, ‘natural’. He argued that the male performed an ‘instrumental’ role as a breadwinner, going out into the world to compete and achieve by working and earning money to support his family. The stress and anxiety this produces is relieved by the ‘expressive’ female, who cares for both her husband and children. This is relevant as without these roles in the family, a Functionalist would argue that the family would not be functional, and therefore become inharmonious and society would break down, the family (one of the social institutions) isn’t performing it’s function.

Despite doubts about the universality of the nuclear family at the time, functionalist sociologists focused their attention to the functions of the family. Nuclear families specialised in the primary socialisation of children. Parsons (1966) believed that personalities were “made not born” and that a child could only become a social adult by internalising the norms and values of their society. Therefore he saw nuclear families as “personality factories” churning out citizens who commit to the rules. This, by some people, could be interpreted as: if you are not a nuclear family but a single parent family or homosexual couple, that you cannot socialise your children properly and that they will not conform to social order or do well in their lives. This of course is not true as many single parent families bring up their children well and then they go on to better things. Furthermore, Parsons view of the socialisation process can be criticised for being too deterministic, with children being pumped full of culture and their personalities being moulded by all-powerful adults. He ignores the possibility of socialisation being a two-way process in which roles are negotiated or that attempts at socialisation can be resisted by children.

Fletcher (1966) viewed the extended family as the dominant family form, which evolved through industrialisation into a modern, isolated, nuclear family. Essentially they were claiming that the industrialisation process created and increased the numbers of nuclear families and led to the decline in the numbers of the extended family. These are ideas are known as both the march of progress or theory of transition. March of progress is a theory of transition and explains why the extended family developed into isolated nuclear families are as follows. The nuclear family is small, therefore more geographically mobile and could more easily move around to pursue the new opportunities available because of industrialisation. The need for extended families has been removed by the increased provision of state / government services to support the family e.g. education and health care. The status of individual family members was no longer dependent on the ascribed status of the overall family. Industrialisation increased the number and variety of job opportunities which meant that individuals could develop achieved status based on their own personal efforts.

The nuclear family was a streamlined unit, which still performed essential functions such as procreation and care of children. In conclusion, the Functionalist views of the role of the family in society shows the importance of the social institution of the family and stresses the importance of socialisation (mainly primary) in the upbringing of the children. However, the idea of a change from a pre-industrial extended family structure to a nuclear family is too simplistic. Moreover, The Functionalist writers mentioned in this answer ignore the dark side of family life; the divorce, child abuse, arguments and so on and so forth. on the same note the Functionalist view drastically over emphasizes the harmonious nature of society. The Functionalist view of the role of the family is outdated as there are many different family types other than the nuclear family, such as same sex couples, and single-parent families.

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