Functionalism, an approach which dominated much of twentieth century thinking, sought to explain the family through the vital functions it played as a social institution. George Peter Murdock, a notable American Anthropologist and functionalist, conducted a study in 1949 in where he studied the institution of the family in 250 different societies. He concluded by saying that the family plays four different basic functions which he termed reproductive, educational, sexual and economic. Education was vital in teaching the norms and values of society whilst reproduction produced members for society. The family certainly does not perform these functions exclusively, this perhaps more relevant after the industrial revolution when the family lost many of its functions to new specialized social institutions such as factories, schools and hospitals. However the family still makes important contributions to all of the above functions.
Talcott Parsons, a respected American sociologist, also pioneered the functionalist perspective of the family. In addition to serving functions to society as a whole as explained above, it also plays equally vital functions for its individual members. According to Parsons, the family during early years of childhood structures the child’s personality and the internalization of society’s culture. Taught mainly by the child’s parents, the central norms and values of society are internalized into a child to a point where it becomes natural and instinctive. This is the same for every child, and without this internalization, society would not be able to function. An American child for example would grow up with the central idea of independence and a strong motivation to achieve a high status in society as these are the central qualities of American culture.
Once this personality is achieved, it must be maintained and this is the second basic function of the family: the stabilization of adult personalities. In order to balance the stress and strains of life found in a busy society, an individual can seek emotional support by his spouse. This function is especially important in Western societies as the nature of the popular nuclear family means that there is no extended family to rely upon for emotional support. Thus the married couple must solely depend on each other. The introduction of a child in a family also allows for the next step in stabilizing the adult personality. Adults can act out childish elements of their own personalities whilst engaging with his or hers child in a activity. This cannot be done in adult society.
The points discussed above largely derive from two of the most influential functionalists in the 20th century. However, there work in recent times has come under particular criticism. Critics tend to agree upon the fact that both perspectives offer an unrealistic picture of the family, portraying a couple who unwillingly care for each other’s every need. Parsons idea of socialization is also dubious as it fails to consider the child who will not conform to his parent’s values and morals. Parsons and Murdock also both fail to offer functional alternatives to the family unit.
As to affirm these criticisms, this functionalist view of the family has not been adopted by other sociologist who favor a more blunt and critical explanation. Friedrich Engles, with his publication of “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” in 1884 developed the first Marxist perspective of the family. He combined an evolutionary approach with Marxism, explaining how at the early stages of evolution, means of production were communally owned and the family as such did not exist. There were no rules to dictate the boundaries of sexual relationships thus society as a whole was the family. However, with the development of the state later in history, restrictions were applied on sexual relationships and on the production of children, reaching the point in where the nuclear family was born. Coinciding with this new unit was the privatization of both property and means of production. These assets were passed down by the male to his heir, and in order to ensure the legitimacy of the link, greater control was placed on women in order to ensure that there was no question about the paternity of the offspring. Summarized by Eagles himself in the original book, “It is based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity; such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his natural heirs.”
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Alternative Marxist perspectives sought to study the role families played in industrial societies. They argued that the capitalist system exploited the free domestic labor of the housewife, seeing childrearing and housework as an essential part of the economy. However the central argument was that the employer only paid for the services of the male breadwinner, securing the housewife’s contribution for free. In addition to this, Marxist also saw that the worker was only able to work long hours for his employer as the domestic labor of looking after the children for example was done by the housewife. The housewife, in addition to the above work, also benefited the employer by reproducing potential workers. Expanding upon this idea, families acted as an ideological conditioning device which reproduced ideologies which prop up capitalism. Children are in affect a reflection of their parents in terms of values and behaviors and so uninspiringly follow them into the same work and patterns. Outside of the household, women were seen as a reserve army of labor that could be drawn in when there was a labor shortage and returned home when demand fell. All of these valuable services were provided to the employer for free, with him only having to pay the male breadwinner.
The Marxists approach compared with the functionalist idea is much more critical of the family unit, and this trend continues with the feminist’s perspective.
In their book “Familiar Exploitation”, radical feminists Christine Delphy and Diana Lenoard attached importance in Marxist methodology in explaining the family unit but nevertheless were of the opinion that men, not capitalism, were the main beneficiaries of the exploitation of women’s labor in the household. They began their explanation by detailing how they saw the family as an economic system in where men benefit from, and exploit the work of women. They identified several factors that related to the family as an economic system, for example that the family structure typically involves two roles and that the male usually occupies the most important one, head of household, and the women and children are left with being helpers. What makes the role of head of household so important is that he has final say on important decisions and assigns duties to other members of the family. These duties vary according to the status and sex of the person in the family as women for example are usually given the task of doing the domestic and reproductive work. The head of household usually has control over finances and spending decisions and this still applies even when the woman is in paid employment. As concluded by Delphy and Leonard, ‘The head of the family may have a near monopoly over, and he always has greater access to and control of, the family’s property and external relations.’
Both of these radical feminists perhaps offer the most comprehensive radical feminist insight into the family unit. They depict a patriarchal and hierarchal structure in where men dominate and receive “57 varieties of unpaid services”. It would be wrong to suggest that women are not oblivious to their exploitation but economic and social constraints make it difficult for women to escape from the patriarchal family. However their assumption that all families have a head has earned their work criticism. The data where this theory derived from is also questionable as it is said to be dated, and more contemporary data show in actual fact show less gender inequality in middle class families than in working class families.
Both of the above approaches tend to agree on the fact that woman are often exploited by men in family life and in the case of Marxism, also benefit capitalism. As already mentioned, both fail to take into account the variety family life can adopt in various societies and the effect this can have on individuals. Difference feminist ensure that the variety of positions women can find themselves in is central to their argument, taking into account lesbian couples, single parent families and the impact social position and race has on the woman’s position. Leading difference feminist Linda Nicholson in her book ‘The myth of the traditional family’ began by defining what is meant by the traditional family. She saw it as the “the unit of parents with children who live together”, separating it from other kin and emphasized the important bond between husband and wife. This simple image of the family is the one often associated with the nuclear family and it became popular among commentators in the 1950s. Alternative families to this image however were not regarded with the same esteem but Nicholson rejected this notion, arguing that alternative families offered greater benefits than the nuclear family for the women who live in them. In her particular study, she saw poor black women in the USA at more of an advantage when at the head of the household without men. Reason being was that their tended to be a stronger relationship between other friends and kin which in turn provided support and insurance, helping out families most in need at a particular time. This theory evidently had disadvantages, namely the lack of a father model which is integral for a child’s upbringing. However traditional families also share several disadvantages such as the inability of a child to turn to other relatives for help when abused by his parent. Nicholson concluded her work in a very liberal manner, advocating greater choice in individuals choosing their preferred living arrangements according to what best suited them. She disagreed with the distinction between traditional and alternative families, citing that traditional families often give the impression that they have long been the norm whilst this is not true.
The summary given above is only one take on the family by a difference feminist among dozens. On the whole however, they all tend to avoid narrowly define the role women play in families and instead show a degree of sensitivity towards different experiences of family life experienced by women of different classes, sexual orientation and ethnicity. It would therefore be fair to say that difference feminists offer the most advance perspective on family life.
In order to expand upon the perspectives explored above, various themes must be examined to gain a comprehensive understanding of the family as a unit of social organization. Perhaps the greatest process to have an effect on family life was the advent of industrialization and modernization in the eighteenth century. Modernization refers “to the development of social, cultural, economic and political practices and institutions which are thought to be typical of modern societies whilst industrialization refers to the “mass production of goods in a factory system which involves some degree of mechanized production technology.” Sociologists regard the above factors to be the detrimental reasons responsible for change in Western societies in the early eighteenth century. Embroiled in this was of course the family unit which found problems relating itself to industrialization or modernization. For example, every society experienced the above changes differently with each social institution effected in differing ways. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that industrialization and modernization is a developing process, our different culture, politics and society to those of our ancestor evidence of this. The complexity of trying to associate families and industrialization and modernization allows for plentiful confusion among academics as to what a pre-industrial family consist of.
Michael Young and Peter Willmott were among those who traced the development of the family from pre-industrial England to contemporary times. Specific to their study, which was published in a book titled ‘The Symmetrical Family’ in 1973, they traced the changes experienced by the family up to the 1970s. They concluded, using a variety of sources and social surveys, that the family had gone through four main stages.
Stage one belonged to the pre-industrial family which was seen as an unit of production consisting mainly of a husband, wife and unmarried children who cooperate as a team. With the advent of industrial revolution however, this form of family became largely extinct with the exception of some farming communities in the nineteenth century.
Followed closely after was stage 2 which coincided with the beginning of the industrial revolution and continued throughout the nineteenth century. As discussed earlier, the family lost many of its functions to other social institution and thus ceased to be an unit of production. The nineteenth century witnessed chronic poverty and high unemployment and therefore the family responded by breaking away from the traditional nuclear model into an extended network which included grandparents and grandmothers. This allowed for an insurance policy and someone to rely on in tough times. As with stage 1, stage 2 declined in importance in the twentieth century but still found prominence in low income, working class areas.
Finally, and still predominating today according to Young and Willmott, is stage 3 which the two sociologist conducted a large scale social survey in order to prove and later became the basis of their book. Stage 3 saw the return of the nuclear family with the exception of it being now more home centered. Free time was usually spent doing domestic work at home and leisure time allowed parents to play with their children and watch television. Stage 3 witnessed a stronger conjugal bond between husband and wife and a notable self-reliance now associated with the nuclear family. The term used to describe this type of nuclear family is ‘symmetrical family’, referring to the now equally shared duty of maintaining the household between two spouses. Radically different to the inequality described above about the allocation of chores and responsibility of finances, couples in stage 3 now share many of the chores and decisions.
Many of the above points are open to criticism, especially by feminists who disagree with the concept of the symmetrical family and instead still seeing oppressive inequality between husband and wife. Despite this, Young and Willmott accomplish in tracing the family before, during and after the industrial revolution and the various forms it adopted according to the needs of society.
Many criticisimis raised about the sociological prespectives is that they fail to consider other forms family may adopt in society.