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Assess the Usefulness of Functionalism for an Understanding of the Family

Assess the usefulness of functionalism for an understanding of the family.Functionalism is a structural theory in that it believes that the social structure of society (social institutions such as economy, education, media, law, religion and family) is responsible for shaping us as individuals.Functionalists are interested in how the family functions for the greater good or society and in particular, how it contributes to maintenance of social order.

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Functionalist’s view of families and households is mainly a positive view. In this essay, I will assess the understanding of families and households through a functionalist view.

All over the world family life is differs by huge variation and diversity. But in the UK and according to functionalists who take the more traditional view of family believe it should be a small group of people living together, including the mother father and usually two or three children and are biologically related. The children should be the product of romantic love. A famous sociologist George Peter Murdock (1949) defines the family as: “A social group characterised by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction.

It should consist of adults of both sexes with at least two who maintain a socially approved relationship, which has created one or more children of their own. 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 functionalist sociologists who suggested that this is the ideal type of family which people should aim to have. Murdock’s four key functions are: Stabilisation/regulation of the sex drive (sexual) Reproduction of the next generation (reproductive)

Socialisation of the young (educational) Meeting its members’ economic needs, providing food shelter etc (economic) Sociologists criticise Murdocks approach on the family saying it’s to ‘rose-tinted’, which means it’s all a bit pretty and wonderful and he ignores conflict that happens in the family. Feminists believe women are oppressed in the family and Marxists argue the family meeting the needs of capitalism, not the members and society as a whole. Parsons, there is a clear division of labour. According to his studies, the husbands has an “instrumental role”, he is armed for success at work so that he can provide for his family.

Wives on the other hand have an “expressive role” where they are expected to emotionally support their husbands and children. The male role is economic breadwinner and head of household, whereas the female role is nurturing and childcare. Lastly, the family members receive nurturing and un-conditional love and care from the mother. This nuclear family type, as mentioned above, is seen as the ideal. We see this in wider parts of society such as the media who portray this in such things as advertisements, where there will be a family with a mother who is preparing the food, the male getting ready for work and two or three children.

This is known as the ‘cereal packet family’. Functionalist see the family as a primary agent of socialisation, it teaches its members its culture by sharing common norms and values. So functionalist believes the family is crucial to order and created consensus. Another Functionalist, Talcott Parsons (1965) believes the family is a ‘personality factory’ who produces children with shared norms and values and has a strong sense of belonging to society.

Another key point functionalists believe the family is crucial for is controlling society daily for example with marriage it keeps sexual relationships under control and monogamous. This is seen as socially acceptable when kept in a heterosexual marriage, so it stops chaos and disorder from unregulated sexual relationships. Parsons argues that a function of the family is that of a stress reliever for the male after a hard day of working, this is known as the ‘warm bath theory’ as all the hardships of modern working life is forgotten.

Therefore functionalist sees the family as both beneficial for society and for the individual. But other sociologists such as feminists would argue this, as they believe the family is only serving the needs of men and oppresses women. According to Fran Ansley women are ‘takers of shit’ “When wives play their traditional role as takers of shit, they often absorb their husbands’ legitimate anger and frustration at their own powerlessness. ” This would counter the warm bath theory and suggest males take their anger out on women, rather than see the family as a stress relief from their jobs.

This could explain domestic violence. Parsons (1955) the family can perform many functions. The functions that it performs will depend on the needs of society. This is known as the ‘functional fit’ theory. Pre-industrial society = extended family (three generations living under one roof) Industrial society = nuclear family (just parents and dependent children). As society changed, the ‘type’ of family that was required to help society function changed.

Industrial society has two essential needs which require a nuclear family to work: A geographically mobile workforce and a socially mobile workforce. Loss of functions ,Parsons also argues that the family in modern society has lost many of its functions as it has become a unit of consumption only (rather than also being a unit of production) This means that in modern society the nuclear family has just two essential or ‘irreducible’ functions: Primary socialisation of children Stabilisation of adult personalities.

Sociologists such as Young and Willmott (1973) ; Laslett (1972) argue that the pre-industrial family was nuclear, which defeats all points made by Parsons and why a lot of people don’t believe his argument is very reliable. To conclude I believe that the usefulness of functionalism for understanding the family has become dated, every key point they make can be argued or disproved with actual statistics and fact. I believe it would have been more credible in the mid-1900s where gender roles where a lot more evident and accepted.

Also they take the nuclear family as the norm, ideal and most apparent family type in modern society which Is false, and Michael Andersons (1980) research proves Parsons functional fit theory wrong, as the extended family was the structure best equipped to meet the needs of early industrial society, due to the benefits such as older kin looing after children whilst parents worked. Therefore I don’t believe functionalism is very useful to get an overall understanding of every aspect of the family.

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