Study Notes

Classic Texts: Talcott Parsons "The Social Structure of the Family" 1959


Last updated 10 Apr 2019

Talcott Parsons is one of the best known functionalist sociologists. His work features in many topic areas in sociology. In 1959, he wrote a classic text on the sociology of families and households.

Functionalist sociologists have taken an interest in the functions of the family: what are families for? While some identified several functions, Parsons suggests that there are two irreducible functions: 1) primary socialisation and 2) the stabilisation of adult personalities.

1) For functionalists, socialisation is the process through which people learn how to behave in society - what is normal and what is important. This is an essential process for society to work: there needs to be broad agreement about these things to prevent people behaving in an antisocial way. Parsons divides socialisation up into primary and secondary socialisation: primary socialisation takes place in the family, where we learn the particular norms and values of our family and community. Later, we learn universalistic values through school, the media and other agents of socialisation.

So parents teach children the norms and values of society, through pre-school education and by example. For Parsons this also strongly involves learning our gender roles. Parsons argued that men were the instrumental leader while women were the expressive leader and that both were necessary. So men carried out discipline and earned money, while women cared and nurtured and raised children. Boys saw the example from their fathers, and girls saw the example from their mothers, and ensured they continued to behave in the same way and give the same example to the next generation.

Of course this idea is now seen as rather outdated. In 1950s America, married women were much more likely to be housewives than to pursue their own careers, and the idea of a clear gender division of labour (men and women performing very different roles) was not controversial.

2) Parsons argued that families performed an important role for individuals and society in keeping people stable. Life is difficult and challenging and frustrating: the family can help to deal with this. Family members give each other care and support and help each other through difficult times. Parsons particularly described this in terms of a man coming home from a difficult day at work and relaxing into his family, like a warm bath.

Marxist sociologists like Zaretsky agree that the family can perform this psychological role but see it much less positively. They see it is as benefiting not society or the individual but the bosses: instead of going on strike, rebelling or having a revolution, discontented workers are restored to return to work by their loving wives. Similarly, feminists see this process differently, as men taking out their frustrations on their wives. Again it could also be seen as rather outdated, as it assumes men will be the breadwinners and women be in the home. It has also been suggested that Parsons was really describing middle-class families and ignored the different experiences of families from different social classes.

Parsons T, ‘The social structure of the family’ in Anshen R N (ed.), The Family: its Functions and Destiny, New York, Harper and Row, 1959

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