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Study notes

Families: Functionalism

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA

Functionalists argue that all institutions in society have important roles to play in the smooth and functional running of society, and the family is no different. They argue that the family has important functions both for society and for individuals.

George Murdock on Families

The classic functionalist statement on the roles of the family comes from George Murdock (1949) who looked at families across the world and found four functions that were common to all of them:

Educational: children are taught the norms and values of society (also known as primary socialisation)

Economic: the family provides an economic function to all its members by pooling resources and ensuring all have what they need.

Reproductive: produces the next generation of the society.

Sexual: ensures that adults’ sexual relationships are controlled and stable.

Talcott Parsons on Families

Talcott Parsons (1951) updated Murdock’s theory. He argued that in modern, Western societies, the state provided education and could perform an economic function (through welfare provisions) but that the family still had two irreducible functions:

Primary socialisation

Similar to Murdock’s educational role, Parsons agreed that families taught children social norms and values. However, he argued that it specifically taught children the norms and values associated with their family and/or community, while other institutions, such as schools, the media, religion, etc. taught children the universal norms and values of wider society. Parsons called this first process primary socialisation and the latter secondary socialisation.

Stabilisation of adult personalities

Parsons also argued that families helped to prevent adults from behaving in disruptive or dysfunctional ways, instead encouraging them to conform to social norms, especially at times of stress. The family provides emotional support to its members.

Parsons famously described this in his warm bath theory. This was the idea that when a man came home from a hard day at work, he could relax into is family like a warm bath and it would take away the stress and refresh him for the next day’s work.

Evaluating functionalist views of the functions of families and households

A standard criticism of functionalist views of the role of the family comes from conflict theorists like Marxists and feminists who argue that this paints too rosy and idealistic a picture of family life. Families are certainly not like that for everyone. Many people have negative experiences of family life, and indeed they can cause stress as well as relieve it.

Conflict theorists also question whether the roles families perform really benefit the whole of society or really just benefit powerful groups within it. In particular, feminists argue that families exist largely for the benefit of men.

The Marxist-feminist Fran Ansley offers a different perspective on Parsons’ warm bath theory when she describes women in the family as takers of shit. By this she means that men coming home from work may have their stress relieved by the family, but only by dumping it on their wives.

Furthermore, these theories are outdated and suggest families are all traditional nuclear families with men going to work and women in domestic roles. We will revisit this part of the discussion in a later section.

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