The Family and Sociology

The family was possibly the first social institution and is considered to be one of the more important ones. Its role in society is mostly discussed in social systems theories since these centre on how social institutions define people's actions.

Functionalist approaches to the family

Functionalism is a consensus-based approach to society, investigating the functions of the various social institutions and how they co-operate with each other. Over the years, various attempts have been made to define the family and its basic functions:

G. P. Murdock
The family is a social group characterised by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It includes 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.

The nuclear family is a universal social grouping ... [w]hatever larger family form may exist, and to whatever extent the greater unit may assume some of the burdens of the lesser, the nuclear family is always recognisable and always has its distinct and vital functions — sexual, economic, reproductive and educational.

Compared to the rather diverse nature of some families in more recent times — single parent families, cohabitating couples, etc. — this definition seems a little inaccurate. Changes in the structure of society also present problems to almost all attempts at defining the family by functionalists, as the number of functions performed by the family has reduced over time. For example, the family is no longer the major source of economic production as it was prior to the Industrial Revolution.

The reduction in the functions that the family performs is a result of social institutions becoming more specialised, a phenomenon known as functional differentiation. Talcott Parsons, a leading functionalist, described what he saw as the two "basic and irreducible" functions of the family:

Primary socialisation of children
Socialisation is the process by which we internalise the norms and values of the world around us. Primary socialisation is responsible for forming many of our identities, such as gender or ethnicity. Since it occurs early in life, the family is generally the institution responsible for it.
Personality stabilisation
Adults need emotional security and a source of release from the stresses of wider society. The emotional support of partners in marriage and indulging in childish behaviour with offspring provides this and prevents stress overwhelming the individual and threatening society's stability


There are various criticisms of functionalist approaches to the family:

  • They concentrate on the positive functions of the family.
  • They assume the family is of equal benefit to everyone.
  • They fail to consider alternatives to the family (such as the kibbutz)
  • There is little appreciation of the diverse family types within societies.

Marxist-Feminist views of the family

Marxists see the family as part of a superstructure of social institutions that serve the needs of and help to maintain capitalism, and perpetuates unequal power relations in society. The family helps to centre society on the concept of private ownership through inheritance. Throughout primary socialisation, the family imposes capitalist ideology on children, with authoritative parents teaching them to accept hierarchical social relationships and the exploitive nature of society. This means that in the modern capitalist state, the bourgeois employers do not need to rely as strongly on direct coercion as they did in the past, as new generations of accepting workers are produced.

The bourgeois family oppresses women, who, in addition to functioning as producers of children are also victims of the domestic division of labour. Women are expected to perform all the housework, thereby alleviating the breadwinning husband of this burden so he can work harder for his capitalist employer. If the housewife were paid for her labours, production costs would rise significantly. This perception of the man earning a "family wage" also means that employers can, in times of labour shortages, employ women for smaller sums of money without seeming unfair. As long as the image of women as housewives persists, the family will remain an obstacle to gender equality.

The family also provides an outlet for the frustrations of the returning worker who, often under pressure to work harder in poor conditions, finds a temporary escape at home. If such an escape takes a violent form, this is often at the expense of the wife and children.

Radical feminism

Radical feminists have similar views of the family as Marxist-Feminists, but they see it as upholding the patriarchy as opposed to an economic system. They do not see the solution as a socialist society but through women building an independent society to challenge patriarchy and the polarisation of gender roles. Since it upholds patriarchy, the family must be abolished or radically modified.

Criticisms of Marxist and feminist views

  • The family is again defined by the functions it performs, although in this sense it is how it upholds capitalism/patriarchy. This suffers from the same flaw as functionalism in that it does not recognise different family structures.
  • They are too negative. For example, it is often argued by Marxists that those women who are satisfied as housewives are subject to a "false consciousness". Opponents suggest that they are genuinely happy.
  • Whilst lamenting the failures of the family, no viable alternative is given. Attempts in the USSR were abandoned as impractical.
  • Various members of the "New Right" (in British sociology textbooks, at least) have criticised radical feminists for undermining the family as they see the nuclear family's stability as fundamental to the structure of society and its decline as responsible for increases in crime and delinquency.

(So far) In this node I have not covered trends in the family or any of the other stuff I'm going to have to learn for my impending sociology examinations. However, I do feel like highlighting one aspect that I found interesting:

The Industrial Revolution and the family

It is generally accepted (I accepted it at least) that the family in pre-industrial society was bigger than in industrialised society. The entire extended family lived together and made baskets. As the industrial revolution progressed, the youth uprooted and went into the big city, shunning the cautionary advice of their elders, and spent the rest of their lives inhaling smoke whilst stuffing their children up chimneys. This is a myth.

In 1965, Peter Laslett's "The World We Have Lost", which studied church records, concluded "that household size was remarkably constant in England at 4.75 persons per household at all times from the late 16th until the early 20th century". This is the size of your typical nuclear family. The reasons for this were not the same as the reasons for the prevalence of the nuclear family today. It's well known that people died young. However, people would not marry unless they were capable of setting up their own family (and, of course, children outside marriage was out of the question) and so often married late. As a result, only two generations tended to be alive at any one time. There was, however, a greater sense of community, with many families having to share resources and helping each other when harvest time came along.

Instead, the extended family was more important in early industrial society. Life expectancy increased, so there was more of an extended family to speak of. Family members would often rely on each other to get a job and accommodation in the city and also to help during periods of unemployment and illness. The increasingly complex extended families tended to remain in one area and so came into contact with each other regularly, so increasing their importance.