Theories on the Family Essay

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In sociology the topic of the family is important because of the role it has in society. Three theories in sociology that give an account of the role and purpose that the family has in society are functionalism, Marxism and feminism. Each theory has strengths and weaknesses as well as research studies that support their argument. Functionalism, which is a consensus theory, describes the family as having its role or function within society. Functionalists normally assume that if a social institution is evident then it must have a role or function in coordinating with other institutions such as schools to help society work.Functionalists argue that all societies need these institutions as they are functional prerequisites which exist in almost every society.

The family is looked at in terms of its functions being beneficial for society and the individual. The ideal family in the functionalists perspective is the ‘nuclear family’, husband and wife living with children in one household. One of the main roles the family has in functionalists theory is primary socialization.It is through this socialization process taking place during the early years of childhood when children are taught norms and social roles within the family. Primary socialization involves the internalization of society’s culture and the structuring of the personality (Parsons, 1955).

Also another role in the family is the stabilisation of personalities, were in members of the family provide each other with emotional support. The family for functionalists also has a role in the continuation of society, as the family provides a basis for reproduction in which the next generation is produced.A strength of the functionalist perspective on the family is that some form of family can be found in nearly every society and the nuclear family is still the most common form of the family even though there has been various changes in the family unit in the last couple of decades. The nuclear family, which functionalists believe is the best type of family for society, have the strongest financial position amongst the different type of families, with single parent households which functionalist see as being at a dysfunction to society have the weakest financial position.

The functionalists theory of the family has been criticised by both Marxist and feminists. One of the criticisms from both perspectives is that functionalism only sees the family in a positive manner and ignores negative aspects of the family such as domestic abuse and divorce. A specific criticism from the feminist perspectives is that the allocation of roles in the family, such as housewife, limits female employment opportunities. A specific criticism from the Marxist perspective is that the functionalist view of the family supports the superstructure of the ruling classes and therefore benefits capitalism.They also believe that the family socialises its members to accept the false consciousness, that capitalism is good for all, even though it exploits the working classes. A study that supports the functionalist theory on the family is that of Wilmot and Young (1973),the Symmetrical Family.

The research studied changes in the family structure using historical and survey evidence. The research was carried out in London between the 1950s and 1970s. The study showed the gradual change in family structures by industrialisation and a changing economy as well as other wider social changes.In the study Wilmot and Young(1973) identified three stages in the development of the family. Stage one was the pre industrial family, where the family would work together on the land to make a subsistence.

Stage 2 the early industrial family, this is where the family , mainly males, work outside the home typically in factories for a wage. Important role for the extended family as industrialisation caused disruption to many working class families. Stage three was the symmetrical family and a move back towards the nuclear family. Also a move towards a sense of balance of conjugal roles.Husband and wife fairly evenly shared household chores and leisure time. This study holds some validity because it recognised the changes of the family structure since industrialisation.

However the study could be seen a weak as the methodology in the questionnaire only asked one question in relation to house hold chores, regarding whether men did a household chore at least once a week. Which means that of the 72% of participants that did they would only have to do a small amount of chores to qualify, which would contradict the idea that the conjugal roles are symmetrical.The functionalist theory has contributed to the debate on the family by highlighting the positive aspects of the family unit and the role the family plays in helping society function. Marxism view on the family is different from that of functionalism. Marxism is a conflict theory. Its basis is that there is a struggle between the proletariat, working class, and the bourgeoisie, ruling class, over the means of production.

For Marxists the ruling class exploit the working class and receive all the wealth and power in society.In Marxist theory there is the economic base, which is the exploitative capitalist system and then the super base, which is the institutions that help to maintain the capitalist system by permitting ruling class ideology that keeps the dominant position of the ruling class. The family unit fits into the Marxist perspective by way of the superstructure. The socialisation role that families have according to Marxists leads to a false class consciousness whereby the working class adopt the ideology of the ruling class even though it is exploitative on them.Marxists therefore argue that the nuclear family ensures that generation after generation remains obedient to the capitalism system.

The nuclear family is an ideological conditioning device which reproduces the ideologies which maintain capitalism, children are in effect trained to attain the values and behaviours of their parents and so often follow them into the same type of work. The family’s job is not to bring up children, but to reproduce the labour power that maintains capitalism. Women and children, according to the Marxist view , are in effect a reserve army of labour.The fact that capitalists can draw upon their labour power, and that workers need to look after their families, means that there is an ever plentiful supply of cheap labour that helps keep wages low(Miliband, 1969). Also in Marxism the family acts as a kind of safety valve or cushion against the capitalist system. So the workers with built up frustration against the capitalist system and the ruling class return to the family to be comforted, ensuring that the stress is released and the worker does not revolt against the system.

This idea can also be linked to domestic abuse.The strengths of the Marxist perspective is that it is better able to explain the conflict that can exist in the family which the functionalist perspective ignores. It also has strength in that it is able to link the economic system with the family, and how the capitalist system exploit’s the working class. A weakness of the Marxist theory on the family is that it focuses too much on the economic side and neglects other factors.

A study which supports the Marxist view on the family is Zaretsky(1976). In it he analysed the development of the family in industrial societies.Zaretsky(1976) argues that the capitalist system creates an illusion of a separation between the private family life the economic system, because the working class man has to work hard to provide for his family thus keeping him tied to his work and the economic system. Also Zaretsky(1976) makes the case that in pre industrial society the family was the productive unit but after industrialisation and the onslaught of capitalism the family moved to become a unit of consumption. The family consumes the products of capitalism which allows the workers to be exploited by the bourgeoisie.Another conflict theory is feminism which views the family as a unit that oppresses women.

An important point is that feminism is not a unified theory, there are many different sorts of feminists such as Marxist, radical and liberal. However there are some general observations which can be made of the family from a broad feminist perspective. In general, feminists have been highly critical of the both the highly positive view of the family presented by Functionalists and the more critical view presented by Marxists. The reason for this is down to one key concept, patriarchy.Patriarchy refers to a system of male dominance. Feminists criticise the functionalist view which sees the family as an institution which benefits all of its members in equal measure.

Feminists argue that this view ignores the gendered aspect of power in the family, it is women who are seen to be responsible for the home and the children. Women’s key role is to reproduce and be child-carers, although in many countries women are now able to have a career, many feminists would point out that this simply leads to a ‘double-burden’ of having .In which women can indeed have careers, but they must also still take the chief responsibility for childcare and household duties. One view among the feminist perspective is that of Marxist feminist. Marxist Feminists argue that in capitalist societies the nuclear family is part of the overall Superstructure of capitalism and that its organisation and functions are heavily influenced by the nature of the capitalist economic base which means that women’s oppression derives primarily from the organisation of the capitalist system.

Thus according to Marxist Feminists housewives fulfil several important functions for the capitalist system, they bear and rear children at no cost to the capitalist system and, along with their husbands, encourage their children to accept authority creating the next generation of obedient workers. Housewives also provide many domestic services at low or zero cost which reduces the wage levels which the capitalist system needs to pay its male workers .Women also form part of the reserve army of labour which is available for employment during times of economic boom but which can return to the traditional housewife role during economic recession. Another view amongst the feminist perspective is that of radical feminism. For Radical Feminists the fundamental cause of female exploitation and oppression is Patriarchy which means literally “rule by the father” but in feminist theory has come to mean the male dominance over women which feminists believe exists in society as a whole.The term is especially likely to be used by radical feminists who argue that it is entrenched in male-female relationships in general and in the family in particular but also in all of the institutions.

So they reject the family unit as to them it is repressive to women (Earlham). A research study that supports the feminist perspective, especially the Marxist feminist view is Oakley(1974) ‘Housewife’.In it Oakley(1974) argued that conjugal roles had changed markedly in the 20th century with industrialisation. In pre industrial Britain, woman worked alongside men, however industrialisation led to the sexual division of labour. Women then became excluded from paid work and were reliant on the male wage which gave way to the segregated roles. A strength of the study is that make clears the development of separate conjugal roles which has led to the subjugation and exploitation of woman.

A criticism of the study is that it focuses on solely the negative side of the family and ignores the positive aspects that the family can have. Also the study could be said to have a low ecological validity because sample group was small and not representative of the whole of society. The contribution that feminism has gave to the topic of the family have been profound in promoting gender equality in the family. In conclusion the perspectives of functionalism, Marxism and feminism have contributed much to the topic of the family.The functionalist view highlights the positive aspects of the family but is limited because there can be a lack of consensus in the family meaning that society does not function.

The Marxist view highlights the relationship between the family and the economic system but does not address other factors that influence the family. The feminist view highlights why there is gender inequality but because there is various views amongst the feminist perspective can contradict one another.

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