1.1 Functionalist theories:
the family performs
positive functions for
individuals and society.
1.2 New right theories: the
family is the cornerstone of
society but it is under
2 Conflict/critical views of the Family
2.1 Marxist theories: the
2.2 Feminist theories: the Family reinforces gender
inequality and patriarchy
3 Functionalist theories
3.1 GP MURDOCK
3.1.1 Murdock argues that the family is a universal institution that performs four major functions
18.104.22.168 Stable Satisfaction of the sex drive with the
same partner, preventing the social disruption
caused by sexual ''free for all''
22.214.171.124 Reproduction of the next generation,
without which society would not be able to
126.96.36.199 Socialisation of the young into societies
shared norms and values.
188.8.131.52 Meeting its members economic needs, such
as shelter and food
184.108.40.206 However, other sociologists have criticised his functionalist approach. Marxists and Feminists reject his 'rose
tinted' consensus view that the family meets the needs of both wider society and all members of the family.
They argue that functionalism neglects conflict and exploitation. For example, feminists see the famiy as serving
the needs of men and oppressing women. Similarly, Marxists argue that it meets the needs of capitalism, not
those of family members or society as a whole.
3.2 Talcott Parsons: the functions
of the family
3.2.1 Parsons believes that every family in every society has two 'basic and irreducible' functions: the primary
socialisation of children and the stabilisation of adult personalities. The initial or primary socialisation takes
place in the early years of a child's life within the family group. During this period the child learns the basic
elements of the culture into which she or he has been born.
3.2.2 The second basic and irreducible function is the stabilisation of the adults personality. The family gives the
individual adult a safety valve, which is a place where she or he can relax, escape the stresses and strains of
the world outside and feel emotionally secure.
220.127.116.11 However, Parsons view of the socialisation process can be criticised for being too deterministic, with children
and their personalities being moulded by all powerful adults. He ignored the possibility of socialisation being a
two way process in which roles are negotiated or that attempts at socialisation can be resisted by children.
18.104.22.168 However, the Marxist Zaretsky argues that the family only provides this emotional support in order to encourage its
members to continue to work another day under the harsh realities of capitalism state which looks after the needs of
exploited workers at no cost to employers.
3.3 Talcott Parsons: The theory
3.3.1 Parsons argues that the dominant structure of the family best suits the needs of the economy at the time. This mean that
nuclear families 'fit' an industrial economy because they are geographically mobile and not reliant on wider kin. This is because
family members can easily move to new centres of production. Parsons condcludes trhat only the nuclear family could provide
the achievement orientated sndf geographyically mobile workforce required by modern economies.
22.214.171.124 However, according to Wilmott and Young, the pre-industrial family tended to be nuclear, not
extended as claimed by Parsons, with parents and children working together in cottage
industries such as weaving. They also argues that the hardship of the early industrialised
period gave rise to the mother-centred working class extended family, based on ties between
mothers and their married daughters, who relied on each other for financial, practical and
emotional support. Similarly, Tamara Hareven concludes that the extended family, not the
nuclear as claimed by Parsons, was the structure best equipped to meet the needs of early
industrial society. Her research showed how extended migrant families in America in the 19th
century acted as a source of support and mutual aid, as well as promoting geographical
mobility by helping newcomers to find work..
3.4 Overall Evaluation of Functionalist theories
3.4.1 1.Functionalist analyses of the nuclear
family tend to be based on middle class
and American versions of the family
and they consequently neglect other
influences such as ethnicity, social class
or religion. For example, Parsons does
not consider the fact that wealth or
poverty may determine whether
women stay at home to after children
or not. Since parsons wrote in the in the
1950s, many western societies, including
the UK, have become multicultural.
Religious and ethnic subcultural
differences may mean that Parsons’
version of the family is no longer
relevant in contemporary society.
3.4.2 2.Feminists argue that as a result
of this picture of the family,
functionalists tend to ignore the
‘dark side’ of the family – conflict
between husband and wife, male
dominance, child abuse, and so on.
They give insufficient attention to
the dysfunctions of the family – the
harmful effects it may have on the
3.4.3 From an interpretivist point
of view, functionalists tend
to neglect the meanings
families have for individuals
and how family members
4 Marxist Theories
4.1 Marxism is a conflict theory which sees all society’s
institutions, such as the education system, the media,
religion and the state, as helping to maintain class
inequality and capitalism. For Marxists, therefore, the
functions of the family are performed solely for the benefit
of the capitalist system. This view contrasts sharply with
the functionalist view that the family benefits both society
as a whole and the individual members of the family.
4.2 Engels : the origin of the family
4.2.1 Engels argued that the need for the family arose
when societies started to value private property.
With the rise of private property an organised
system of inheritance became neces¬sary fathers
needed to know who their offspring were in order
to pass their property down the family line. With
this, argues Engels, the need for monogamy arose
one man married to one woman and hence the
family was created. Therefore the family serves
the interests of the economy in this case the
creation of ownership of property – while
subjecting women to unequal power relations in
126.96.36.199 However, modern research has suggested that Engels’
interpretation of the development of the family are historically
inaccurate. For example, monogamous marriage and the nuclear
family are often found in hunter-gatherer groups. Since humans
have spent the vast majority of their existence as
hunter-gatherers, the idea that the nuclear family emerged as a
response to private property is unlikely. Functionalists such as
Parsons would reject Engels view of the development of the family.
Rather than being a vehicle for passing down inherited wealth, the
family plays an important role in socialising the young and
stabilising adult personalities. Moreover, the division of labour in
families reflects the natural expressive, nurturing and caring roles
of women, and the more instrumental, providing role of men.
4.3 Zaretsky: how the family benefits capitalism
4.3.1 Zaretsky suggests that the family serves capitalism by
offering emotional security from the oppressive world of work,
thus allowing such oppression to continue. However, in reality,
it only provides emotional warmth to encourage its members
to con¬tinue to live another day under the harsh realities of
188.8.131.52 However, the liberal feminist Jennifer Somerville argues
that Zaretsky exaggerates the importance of the family as
a refuge from life in capitalist society. She suggests that
Zarestsky underestimates the extent of cruelty, violence and
incest within families. She also argues that Zaretsky
ignores the fact that during the early stages of capitalism
most working class women had to take paid work in order
for the family to survive, and relatively few stayed at home
as full-time housewives.
4.4 Althusser and Poulantzas: the ideological role of the family
4.4.1 The family can be seen as serving the functions of an ideological state apparatus by socialising both
pro-capitalist ideology and its own familiar ideology in order to maintain such family patterns over time.
For example the family socialises its members into accepting gender roles, into accepting that it is
'natural' for men and women to get married and engage in separate roles and jobs in the home: an
attitude that is passed down from generation to generation.
184.108.40.206 However, feminists argue that Althusser and Poulantzas ignore the fact that
such a family ideology supports patriarchy since it suggests that men and
women should have different roles in the family and society roles that lead to
the subordination of women to men. Similarly, functionalists reject the view that
the family socialises children into capitalist ideology. Instead, the family enables
children to internalise the culture of society to enable them to become effective
4.5 Overall Evaluation of Marxist theories
4.5.1 •Marxist views of the family follow
logically from Marxist theory. If, for
example, the family provides emotional
support for workers, then this helps them
to accept the injustices of the capitalist
system. This makes sense if capitalism is
seen as essentially unjust. However, many
sociologists reject this view of capitalism
and, as a result, Marxist view of the
4.5.2 • Feminists argue that the Marxist emphasis on
social class and capitalism underestimates the
importance of gender inequalities within the
family. For feminists, the family primarily
serves the interests of men rather than
4.5.3 • By contrast, functionalists argue that
Marxists ignore the very real benefits that
the family provides for its members, such as
intimacy and mutual support.
4.5.4 • From an interpretivist point of view, Marxists
tend to neglect the meanings families have for
individuals and how family members interpret
family relationships. For example, Marxists ignore
accounts of family life in which some females
suggest motherhood is a fulfilling and rewarding