Examine Functionalists explanations of the family (24 marks)
Functionalists believe that society is based on a set of shared values and norms; this is known as a value
consensus. These norms and values socialize its members, which enables them to cooperate with each
other so society’s needs are met, this creates social order. It offers a structural and macro view of the
family which is top down.
Functionalists see society as being similar to a biological organism for example the human body.
This is called the organic analogy. The human body is made up of various different parts that function
together, each part is necessary for the normal functioning of the whole body. Society is made up of
various institutions (for example education or family), Functionalists believe that these institutions rely on
each other each other which helps maintain social order. If one institution is quickly modified or fails to
work with other institutions, society would be dysfunctional and would end up in anarchy. Functionalists
compare this with the human body because if one component is unable to work, this often affects other
components in the body, which could result in death. Functionalists believe that a family is a vital
institution, which contributes to maintaining social order because it meets the needs of other institutions
such as the education system, which enables society to function in a unified manner. Functionalists
believes that the nuclear family fitssociety’s needs, however several alternative theories such as Feminism
contradict Functionalist ideology.
Murdock believes that the nuclear family performs four essential functions for society and its members
however he acknowledges that other institutions can perform these functions. He claims that he found
evidence of a nuclear family in 250 different societies so he argues that a nuclear family is universal as it
fulfills societies needs. The first function is sexual, Murdock believes that sexual intercourse with the same
marital partner can prevent social disruption and can strengthen the tie between husband and wife. The
second function is reproduction; this allows new members of society to be born which is essential for
society because if reproduction did not continue then society would cease to exist. The third function is
economical so the family can provide for its members e.g food and shelter. The final function is the
education system, this enables the young to be socialized and educated into society’s norms and values,
and this suggests the family is a positive feature of society.
However Murdock’s research is limited because he ignores diversity.His research is based on a
nuclear family, yet in modern society there are many different family types, for example homosexual
The postmodernist view believes that the nuclear family is no
longer the norm and therefore the functionalist theory is not relevant to today’s society. Another criticism
would be that Functionalists do not consider the validity of other family structures such as the Nayar or the
Kibbutz who can also perform the four functions.
On the other hand, a strength ofMurdock’s work is it provides an insight of the families’ importance
to society, because they examine how a family functionsin society. Another positive to Murdock’s
interpretations of family life would be that Murdockcould generalize his research because he has studied
250 different societies, which demonstrates how a nuclear family can fit societal needs around the world.
Another Functionalists explanation of the family comes from Parsons who believes that the functions a
family has to perform, will affect its ‘shape’ or ‘structure’. Parson’s identifies two types of family structure:
the nuclear family, which fits the needs of modern industrial society and the extended family, which fits
the needs of pre-industrial society.
Parson’s argues that the
extended family was multi-functional so it was a unit of consumption and production whilst the nuclear
family fits the key needs of modern industrial society: geographically mobile workforce and the socially
mobile workforce. The geographical mobility industries often required people to move to where the jobs
were, Parson’s argued that a nuclear family (two generations) would find it more straightforward to move
than an extended family (three generations) so the nuclear family is better fitted to the needs of modern
industrial society. The social mobile workforce implied that modern society is constantly changing with
technology and science also individual status is often achieved (using their own efforts) rather than
ascribed (fixed from birth) e.g. the son may ascribe their own status and move away from home and create
their own nuclear family in which they are structurally isolated from other members so Parson’s argues
that the nuclear family is better equipped that than the extended family to meet societies needs.
Parson’s argues that the nuclear family ‘fits’ (fit thesis) modern society yet he also notices that the
changing functions of the family are socially advanced so the family have to fulfill fewer functions for its
members, Parson’s argues that the nuclear family specializes in two functions: the primary socialization of
children which educates the next generation with basic skills and society’s values. The stabilization of adult
personalities is the second function, this enables adults to release tensions so they can return to their
place of work and perform their roles efficiently.
Parson’s identifies segregated conjugal roles between a husband and wife. The husband has the
instrumental role so he is expected to provide for his family whilst the wife has the expressive role and is
expected to nurture her children.
There are many negatives with Parson’s ideology for instance he idealizes the nuclear family and
ignores diversity, as there is more than just the nuclear and extended family in modern society. Another
criticism would be that Peter Laslett studied the pre-industrial society and concluded that in this society,
the common family was nuclear and not extended as Parson claimed. This was because many families
decided to have their children when they were older and short life expectancy conveyed that grandparents
were not alive when their first grandchild was born. .
However there are some positives about Parson’s research, the first would be that Parson’s
identifies how families change in society, another reason would be that Parson’s research shows how
families can adapt to meet societies needs so a more stable society is created and he argues that family life
‘fits’ and benefits society e.g. reproduction allows new members of society to be created so society’s
norms and values are passed on to the next generation, which helps create a stable society and social
More broadly, some feminists such as Oakley argues that Murdock and other functionalistsneglects
conflict and exploitation in a family (e.g. domestic violence), many feminists also believe that within the
family, women are serving the needs of men and they are oppressed, this suggest the family is not
functional for women as argued by the functionalists.
Marxist’s have a similar conflict point of view as they believe that Murdock ignore the negatives in a family
life, as Murdock has an extremely positive view on family life. Marxists ( Engels and Zaretsky)however
argue that the family meets the needs of capitalism and not those of family members or society in general,
which conflicts with Murdock’s ideology.
Furthermore The radical psychiatrists such as Laing argues that the family is dysfunctional as it
damages the individual and can lead to mental illness, they argue that the nuclear family is not productive
to its members.
The New right however supports the functionalist’s view of the nuclear family and suggests they
help society to function, however they are an extreme view and have themselves been criticized.
To conclude, Functionalists all agree that the nuclear family is the best to fit societies needs, it
offers a positive consensusview, however it ignores women’s positions and ignore how the family feeds
capitalism, they also ignore family diversity. To understand the family unit, one must look at all theoretical
views as functionalism on its own is too limited a view.