"The family is the most important institution in society. " This statement is repeated in almost every sociology text in some form or another. However, current trends suggest that there may be some inaccuracies in this claim. Family is indeed important and necessary. It can even be defined as very important, but its relationship to the term institutional may be problematic. The conflict is inherent in the definition of family based of the functionalists and the conflict theorists.
Functionalist TheoryThis conservative, macro-level perspective emphasizes the role of family as a social institution that contributes to social stability. Carroll (2012) explains that the violence and terror of the French Revolution and the mass violence resulting from the desperate circumstances of the workers during the Industrial Revolution led to fears of the consequences of a crumbling social order. Out of this fear grew conservative intellectual writings that examined social bonds, rules, and socialization practices that enable society to maintain a sense of stability that benefits all members of society.
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Functional theorists warn of dire consequences if a strong society and effective socialization practices are not maintained. Carroll explains that Emile Durkheim, the French scholar who first presented this theory, suggested that society had a moral authority to "limit individual aspirations" in order to maintain norms and values and to limit social change in order to prevent social upheaval. Within this theory, family is seen as the institution that is responsible for socializing children, regulating sexual activity and reproduction, and provides its members with a social identity (Carroll, 2012).
This macro-level perspective focuses on the negative outcomes of societal norms, such as social inequality, and seeks to address and redress the aspects of society that perpetuate these undesirable norms. Carroll (2012) explains that this theory grew out of the works of Marx and Engels who believed that revolution was a necessary step for transforming a capitalist social order that enslaved the working class (the proletariat) to the ruling class (the bourgeoisie) and perpetuates poverty and misery for the enslaved.
The primary conflict according to Marx and Engels is based on perpetuating social norms within a class system that benefits one class over another. Conflict theorists examine how the family unit is also an institution that perpetuates inequality, by reinforcing patriarchy, between members of the family and seeks to find solutions to reduce or eliminate these innate inequalities. Feminist theory, in particular, evaluates how gender inequality is perpetuated within the family as children are socialized to fulfil future social, political, and economic roles (Carroll, 2012).
A micro-perspective paradigm examines the meanings, interpretations, and understandings of the interactions of individuals within a society. While this type of theory does not contribute to evaluating and solving social issues such as poverty, racism, sexism, or social change, it does allow a context for understanding the nature of institutions, such as the family, within the macro-perspective theories. Social order is transmitted through symbols— roles, behaviours, and other social constructions— that are integrated as a result of social interactions (Carroll, 2012).
Although this is a micro-theoretical paradigm, understanding the interactions, communication, symbols, and expectations could contribute to alleviating the clash between the two macro-level theories. Understanding what works and what does not work permits opportunities to change or delete the aspects of family or family dynamics that contributes to inequality, without dismantling the entire institution and causing complete social upheaval.
The Changing Nature of Family O'Neill (2002) evaluates the "fatherless family" and provides ample statistics to show that the breakdown of the traditional family of father, mother, and offspring— due to increasing divorce and out-of-wedlock reproduction— is correlated with poverty, emotional, psychological, and heath problems, and interaction problems with children for lone mothers; health issues or increased engagement in high risk behaviours for non-resident fathers; poverty, deprivation, school troubles, more health problems, and increased risk of abuse for children who do not live with their biological fathers. Her conclusion that these issues are the result of the breakdown of the family is an example of functionalist theory.
She suggests that the outcomes are the result of the social breakdown of a vital social institution. A conflict theorist would more than likely suggest a different reason for the observed dysfunctions outlined by O'Neill (2002). The symbolic-internationalist would provide very specific context of the nature of the interactions within the families described by O'Neill and may find that the dysfunctions are not the result of resistance to socialized norms, but in fact due to conformity.
The "fatherless" family is led by a mother, and she is likely to be subject to societal norms that diminish her ability to earn as much as her male counterparts (increased poverty— which contributes to greater stress, diminished health, deprivation, etc. ). The functionalist would argue that the distressing results found in these families are also necessary outcomes, as society must not reward those who seek to disrupt the social order.
This functionalist attitude is very evident in current American political discourse as a number of far right-wing conservative politicians are introducing and passing legislation that reflects their fundamentalist Christian ideals in which patriarchal values that limit the "individual aspirations" of women to control their own reproduction. The traditional family consists of a bread-winning father and a home-making mother, an ideal that is held sacrosanct by this group of legislators.
The conflict theorist, by contrast, seeks to discover the constructs in society and within the family that cause the inequalities, rather than to blame the inequalities on those who are trapped by them for not conforming to the functionalist ideals. Families are continuing to evolve— at least the definition is— in that there is increasing acceptance— both social and legal— for families in which the primary adults are a same-sex couple, either with or without offspring.
The battle of ideologies still rages on in the United States, although an increasing number of states have extended legal status to families of this type. In Canada, the Civil Marriage Act was passed in 2005 and after a brief re-vote in 2007— which defeated the Conservative motion to restore the traditional definition of marriage— marriage equality became a non-issue (politically) when the prime minister announced his government would not bring it up again (Makarenko, 2007). Family as a Societal Institution The family serves a functional purpose in society in that it provides the environment for producing, nurturing, and socializing the next generation.
However, the nature of family has changed significantly and some of the new styles of families— single parent families, cohabiting unions, same-sex intimate partnerships, egalitarian marriages, and blended families— contradict the societal norms representative in a traditional patriarchal family. Cherlin (2004) explains that the "weakening of social norms that define partners' behaviour" has deinstitutionalized marriage. The political and religious backlash is indicative of the conservative functionalist view of social stability being reliant upon maintaining the status quo.
In fact, these conservatives are holding many of societies ills (e. g. , increased crime, debilitating poverty, sexual promiscuity, etc. ) as evidence that society is breaking down and traditional norms must be re-established in order to preserve order. The conflict theorists would argue that social norms are, in fact, the source of the dysfunctions in society. The solution is somewhere in between. The social norms that define family as an institution are likely problematic. The aspects of family that support and nurture intimate partners and children are vital to our continued well-being. In fact research suggests that the "symbolic significance" of marriage is still valued by individuals (Cherlin 2004).
Family as a refuge, a safe place to grow, learn, and achieve, is an ideal that inspires us, but family as a tool of the state to perpetuate inequity is what makes it an institution. The functionalists are correct, the institutions are failing, but a new family paradigm is emerging. Family is more about the relationships and what members of families can do for each other, rather than what the unit can do for the state. Burgess and Locke (1945) argued that the family is moving away from "institution" and moving toward "companionship”.
Perhaps it is time to let go of the functionalist definition and embrace the research of the social internationalists "to understand the other person's symbols and meanings... [and] approach common ground" (Hammond, 2009). Inglehart and Baker (2000) found evidence in their World Values Surveys— that included 65 societies that represented 75 percent of the world's population— that religious and traditional values continue to leave an imprint upon cultures but economic development is "associated with shifts away from absolute norms and values toward values that are increasingly rational, tolerant, trusting, and participatory."
The modern definition of family is much too diverse to fit the functionalists' traditional paradigm as an institution designed to perpetuate social norms in order to maintain social stability. Some modern families are examples of contradictory norms and are held up as examples by conservatives as the very reason society is on the brink of chaos. However, it is unlikely that society is in fact in danger of a complete breakdown. The new families are actually indicative of a society that is moving into a new paradigm where diversity is embraced.
Family is still valued and supported, but not as an institution that perpetuates social norms, but as a function that supports individual growth and security. The nature of this societal grouping is one of affection and security for all its members and as such will remain important and as long as families— of all types— are supported and sustained by society and by its members, the larger community will also benefit with the same stable society that the functionalists so adamantly wish to preserve.
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