Examining Functions of the Family
(a) Explain what is meant by ‘consensus’. (2 marks)
Functionalists believe that society is based on a value consensus – a set of shared norms
and values into which society socialises its members. The family is a universal institution
that performs essential functions for society and family members.
(b) Identify the ‘two essential functions’ that Parsons sees the nuclear family as
performing. (4 marks)
The family provides a function as a stable satisfaction of the sex drive, therefore reducing
the social disruption and conflict that could occur if there was a ‘sexual free for all’.
The family also reproduces the next generation ensuring that society continues over time.
(c) Suggest three functions that a family might perform apart from those referred
to in Item A. (6 marks)
Socialisation of the young into society’s shared norms and values, for example learning how
to communicate with others.
Meeting its members economic needs such as providing food and shelter for the family
Stabilising adult personalities, the family is a place where adults can relax and release
tensions, enabling them to return refreshed back to the workplace.
Using material from Item Aand elsewhere, assess the contribution of functionalism to
an understanding of families and households. (24 marks)
Functionalists believe that society is based on a value consensus this is a set of shared
norms and values into which society socialises its members. This enables society to work
harmoniously and meet society’s needs and goals.
Functionalists view society as being made up of a number of sub-systems that are
dependent upon each other. These can include the education system, media, religion, and
the economy. Just as the human body is dependent upon each of the functions in order to
survive, society is dependent on each of the sub-systems. The family meets some of
society’s essential needs by socialising children. This is regarded as a basic building block
of society. George Murdoch (1949) argues that the family performs four essential functions
to meet the needs of society and its members. These include; stable satisfaction of the sex
drive, reproduction of the next generation, socialisation of the young and meeting its
members economic needs.
Murdoch argues that the nuclear family because of its sheer practicality is a way of meeting
the four needs of society and that this can be found universally. However, some sociologists
would argue that these four needs can be met in other ways than the nuclear family, for
example by other institutions or different family types.
Marxists and Feminists have criticised Murcdoch’s view. Marxists and Feminists say that
functionalism rejects conflict and exploitation. Feminists see the family as being patriarchal
and serving the needs of men. Marxists argue that the family meets the needs of capitalism
and not family members or society.
Parson’s argues that the particular structure and functions of a family type will ‘fit’ the needs
of society in which it is found. According to Parsons’ there are two types of society;
industrial and pre-industrial society. He argues that the nuclear family fits the needs of the
industrial society and therefore this is the most dominant type of family in this society, while
the extended family fits the pre-industrial society. Parsons argued that when Britain began
to industrialise from the 18th
C onwards then the extended family gave way to the nuclear
family. He believes this happened as industrial society had two basic needs.
Firstly people had to be geographically mobile as in modern society industries are constantly
springing up in one area and declining in another, therefore people have to move to
wherever the work is available. Parsons’ argues that it is easier for the nuclear family to
move around frequently than the extended family.
Secondly there was a need for a socially mobile workforce. Technology and science are
constantly evolving and it is important that the most competent people are promoted to the
top jobs despite their background. In traditional pre-industrial societies people had ascribed
or fixed status in modern society they have achieved status. Through hard work people can
achieve their status and earn top jobs such as a lawyer. For this reason Parsons argues
that the nuclear family is better as in an extended family the father would have the head of
the household status. The son may have achieved a better job than his father and therefore
this would cause conflict if they lived as an extended family under the same roof.
The pre-industrial family had many functions it was a unit of production where the family
worked together perhaps on a farm and a unit of consumption, feeding and clothing for its
members. It was more self-sufficient than the modern nuclear family. However according to
Parsons when the family changed from an extended to a nuclear family in industrial Britain it
lost many of its functions. For example the family ceases to become a unit of production.
The family had just two irreducible functions these were the primary socialisation of children
and the stabilisation of adult personalities.
However, not everyone accepts the functionalist view of the family and its role. Marxists and
feminists reject its consensus assumptions about who benefits from the family. Marxists see
capitalist society as being based upon conflict between the capitalist class and the working
class. They see the function of the family therefore benefitting the capitalist system. This
contrasts sharply with the view of functionalists who believe that the family benefits the
family members and society.
Marxists argue that the family is shaped by who owns the mode of production (tools
machinery raw materials etc). In modern society it is the capitalist class who owns and
controls the mode of production. The family has evolved from this.
The patriarchal monogamous family came about as the forces of production developed. In
Engel’s view, monogamy became essential because of the inheritance of private property,
men had to be certain of the paternity of their children to ensure that their children only
inherited their wealth and property. In Engel’s view the rise of the monogamous nuclear
family represented a “world historical defeat of the female sex” as the nuclear family brought
woman’s sexuality under male control and turned her to into an instrument to produce
Today Marxists argue that the family performs ideological functions, or a set of ideas or
beliefs that reinforce inequality between the classes and persuades people that the capitalist
system is a fair one. The family socialises children into thinking that inequality and hierarchy
are fair. For example children are dominated and controlled by adults, this gets them used
to the idea that there will always be someone in control in the workplace.
Capitalism exploits workers, by making a profit of the commodities they sell. The family
plays a major role in generating profits as they are a unit of consumption and an important
market for the sale of consumer goods. Advertisers encourage the family unit to purchase
these goods and the media target children so they will pester their parents to buy the goods.
However Marxists tend to assume that the nuclear family is the most dominant type in
society and they ignore other family types. Feminists argue that Marxists place too much
emphasis on class conflict and not enough on the gender inequalities that exist between
men and women. Also, Functionalists ignore the real benefits that the family can provide
such as mutual support and intimacy.
Feminists also take a critical view of the family. They argue that the family oppresses
women. They see gender inequality as something that is created by society. Fran Ansley
(1972) describes women as ‘takers of shit’ who soak up the frustration of their husbands that
they feel because of their exploitation and alienation in the workplace. Marxists feminists
see the exploitation of women in the family as linked to the exploitation of the working class.
They argue that the family must be abolished at the same time as a socialist revolution
replaces capitalism with a classless society. Radical feminists argue that the family and
marriage are key institutions in patriarchal society. Men benefit from women’s unpaid
domestic labour and from their sexual services, and they dominate women through domestic
and sexual violence of the threat of it.
Other sociologists have criticised the Marxist, Functionalist and Feminist views as they both
assume the dominant family type is nuclear. Today, in Britain there are a diverse range of
family types, with the nuclear family being just one of these. Both these theories assume
families and their members are puppets manipulated by society to perform certain functions
for example to provide society with a workforce.
Sociologists who are influenced by the social action view would argue that structural theories
such as Marxism and Functionalism ignore the fact that we do have some freedom to make
choices for ourselves. For example more couples are deciding to remain childless and the
family types are becoming increasingly diverse.