In this essay I intend to discuss the family as a social construct and institution. I will be critically discussing the different forms of the family, and the role of the family within society from four sociological perspectives.
The family as a social structure is often taken for granted to mean a married couple with children, possibly incorporating grandparents and directly linked blood relatives. This stereotypical view does not take into account a changing society with changing norms and values. It is important when discussing the family in a sociological context to define the family in a wider perspective.
Ferrante (2011) suggests that “the family is often described as a social institution that binds people together through various means, blood, marriage, norms and law.” According to Zelditch (1964) as cited in Ferrante (2011) “there is no concrete group which can be universally identified as the family.”
Several institutions including political parties, the legal system and the media have been blamed for creating the ‘cereal packet’ family but not all sociologists agree with what appears to be typical British family. Gittins (1993) as cited in Marsh and Keating (2006) states “The ideology of the family would have us believe that there is one type of family, one correct way in which individuals should live and interact with each other…An ideology that claims that there is only one type of family can never matched in reality, for it represents an ideal to which only some can approximate, an others not at all.”
During the last century the concept of the family has altered, this is partly due to industrialisation, modernity, changing norms and values and the media. The family can now be seen to have many dimensions, what was considered to be deviant or diverse is often accepted as a norm.
Some sociologists argue that during the nineteenth century, post industrialisation, social order, or kinship, “a network of relatives (kin) who are connected by common decent or marriage.” (Fulcher and Scott 2007) began to alter. Communities that were based on traditional shared values of religion and community changed. Cottage industries began to disappear and families moved from rural areas into towns and cities the nature of the of kinship began to diminish. The economic and social life of this type of family relationship changed, according to Ritzer and Ryan (2011) “Rural people were lured by the novelty of city life and the prospects of greater economic opportunity. The domestic economy of the pre-industrial family disappeared.” The industrial revolution provided factory work for men leaving the females to take a more prominent role as the caregivers, the family dynamics began to alter creating a major change in the division of labour within the family.
“Industrialisation was identified by many as having sounded the death knell for this way of life, destroying extended families and undermining communities.” (Ogburn 1955 as cited in Gillies 2003). The extended family tends to include generations of family extending both horizontally and vertically including connections my marriage and blood. It is argued by some sociologists that industry has destroyed the traditions of the extended family and the social bonding of kinship, leading to the nuclear family. Talcott Parsons (1949) as cited in Fulcher and Scott (2007) stressed that in the absence of the extended family and kinship, the nuclear family met the needs of a changed society. However Laslett and Wall (1972) as cited in Fulcher and Scott (2007) suggest that the nuclear family has always been the more dominant family type throughout the history of family life.
The functionalist approach to the family suggests that the family itself is responsible for ensuring that vital tasks are achieved. Functionalists believe that social institutions such as schools, churches, political systems and the family are all essential to the structure of an effective functioning society and all of these institutions inter relate with each other for the benefit of the whole of society, if one aspect of the structure does not function adequately then society will inevitably experience some form of failure and conflict. Functionalists suggest that the family is one of the most important institutions responsible for the successful raising of a child and parents play a key role in ensuring that children become well integrated within society.
Murdock (1949) conducted a study based on two hundred and fifty societies with the aim of discovering if the family was universal. His conclusion was that the nuclear family was a universal social institution that comprised of four basic functions. These he called, sexual relationships, economic cooperation among members, reproduction and the socialisation of infants and children. (Stark, 2010)
Murdock’s theory has been criticised by many non functionalist sociologists suggesting that his study focussed on the nuclear family and did not take into account other family forms. Gough (1959) argued that Murdock’s theory did not take into account societies such as the Nayar, where one woman could have up to twelve potential fathers to a child and a man could have an unlimited amount of wives. Support came from brothers, sisters and children not from potential fathers. This system was based purely on kinship groups. Gough suggests that the existence of the Nayar was not based on economic cooperation between husbands and wives, the socialisation of infants was provided by the women and their kinship groups, and any affectionate relationship between men and women was prohibited. Gough’s criticism can be closely compared to family groups in British society today looking at family units that do not meet Murdock’s nuclear family theory these families could be single parent families or families consisting of same sex couples. (Bell 1968)
Parsons (1959) as cited in Macionis (2012) argued that the family retains two primary functions, these functions are found in all forms of family thought out the world. He suggests that the primary socialisation of children is the first and most important setting for child rearing and parents are in the position to ensure children are able to become well integrated into society and the structuring of the personality in the early years leads to contributing members of society. He acknowledges that family socialisation continues throughout the life cycle but secondary socialisation becomes more dominant as the child develops due to the family being less involved, and agencies such as schools and peer groups become involved.
Parsons as cited in Harolambos and Holborn (2008) argued that families “are factories which produce human personalities”. Parsons second observation of the family was the stabilisation of the adult personality arguing that men and women who have deep personal relationships will lead content and fulfilling lives which in turn will improve family life removing some of the tensions that the family may face such as work and relationships. Marxist sociologists may argue that although family life can be fulfilling and happy the fact that contemporary British society is based on capitalism, which results in exploitation, family members will inevitably be placed under financial strain and tension which can cause problems of discontent and the breakdown of the family unit. Criticisms were that his theory was outdated and based on the ideology of the nuclear family alone.
Marxist writers in the 1970’s put forward a different perspective of the family they argued that “the capitalist system exploits the free domestic labour of the housewife through the domestic division of labour.” (Fulcher and Scott 2007). They argue that the concept of the nuclear family promotes the role of the man to be the breadwinner and the woman to be the housewife which has led women, if wanting to work, becoming the reserve army therefore being called upon when required, for example during times of war, according to Marxist theorists the nuclear family provides employers with cheap disposable labour that tends to be less valued than their male counterparts. (Fulcher and Scott 2007)
“On what foundation of the present family, the bourgeois family based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie …The bourgeois claptrap about the family and education, about the hallowed correlation of parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of modern industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour.” (Marx and Engels, 1848 as cited in Ferrante 2011)
Although Marx and Engels seem to be criticising the family and suggesting that the family may be considered as a tool for capitalism they were in fact suggesting that the family should be improved and it was the traditional family types that approved of the exploitation of women and children. According to Marsh and Keating (2006), Engels believed that the family exploited women and children and the end of the exploitation within the family could only be achieved in a communist society.
The development of the Marist perspective continued throughout the century and the views of Engles and Marx were applied to a modern capitalist society. Modern Marxists would argue against the functionalists who stress that the purpose of the family is to raise children. Marxists agree that the family has a job but that job is to reproduce the labour power that maintains a capitalist society. It is also suggested that the family is a control mechanism that exerts social control on parents. Living in a highly consumer orientated society, children are often in competition with their peers and parents are in competition with other parents to ensure that their children have the best technology and prospects, the pressure to remain in a competing capitalist society gives the parents little choice but to compete in the workplace and accept capitalism as a norm. “The family is thus an integral part of what Marxists call ‘commodity fetishism’; it helps to fuel the creation of false needs, which in order to be satisfied, require people to work hard. Mobile phones, laptops, X-boxes; all these frivolous things need to be bought by someone and in western capitalist societies it is now increasingly young people who are an important market. And young people come from, of course, families.” (Abbot 2010)
Historical changes in society have led to changes in feminist perspectives creating several waves of feminism. Although there are several types of feminist views including Liberal, Socialist, Radical and Marxist they do all share a common belief that women experience a range of social, economic, political and personal difficulties in their lives but they don’t all agree on the cause of these difficulties.
In general feminists have discarded the Functionalist theories of the nuclear family and suggested that many parents have socialised their children to behave in a manner that is considered to be appropriate to their gender roles. Feminists argue that when children see their parents behaving in their appropriate gender role then the children naturally assume that they should behave in the same way. Females have been shown what is considered to be feminine or female, dependence, obedience, conformity and domesticity and males have been encouraged by parents to be dominant, competitive and independent. (Holburn and Steel 2012)
The radical feminist perspective of the family agrees basic concept of the Marxist view suggesting that exploitation is a key aspect of the family, however where Marxists suggest that capitalism plays a key role for the exploitation of women the feminist approach suggests that the division of labour is due to genetic predispositions that women are seen as the carers and are more suitable to child rearing that their male counterparts who are seen as the providers. Feminists argue that in the division of labour is unequal and that the domestic role is unrewarded and undervalued. According to Sheeran (1993) as cited in Marsh and Keating (2007) “Marxist and radical feminists argue that the family is both an ‘ideological construct’ and a repressive, socially produced reality, which helps to perpetuate capitalism and / or patriarchy. Such criticisms are overtly anti family, and argue that women have been forced into taking responsibility for child care by that ‘agent’ of the state, the patriarchal family.”
Morgan (1975) as cited in Haralambos and Holborn (2008) suggests that “both functionalist and Marxist approaches, both presuppose a traditional model of the nuclear family where there is a married couple with children, where the husband is the breadwinner and where the wife stays at home to deal with the housework.”
The Interactionist approach is seen to be quite different and works at a micro level rather than the macro level like the previous perspectives. Symbolic interactionism has been an important theoretical perspective in family studies since its early development in the 1920s and 1930s. Symbolic interaction theory describes the family as a unit of interacting personalities. LaRossa and Reitzes (1993) as cited in International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family (2003). Interactionists suggest that families reinforce and rejuvenate their bonds through the use of rituals. Some social scientists believe that rituals like gathering together for a family meal or the ritual of marriage using symbols to reinforce the bonds this can be seen as a source of family strength and if families preserve rituals then children will become more emotionally equipped to face problems in the future. (Hughes and Kroehler 2011). Critics stress that symbolic interactionism only looks at the micro level and that this perspective does not take into account larger issues of society.
The New Right perspective of the family was born from functionalist ideology and supports the theory that the nuclear family is the only type of family that works effectively within British society. Between the 1950’s and the 1990’s the nuclear family began to alter, families were no longer perceived to be seen in the traditional stereotypical sense, families were becoming more diverse partly due to changes in the law, abortions were legalised, homosexuality decriminalised and the introduction of legislation such as the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act was introduced. New types of families were emerging. Single parent families, reconstituted families, individuals that cohabitated and the formation of same sex relationships that may or may not have had children from previous relationships. The New Right believe that the lack of traditional family and values and diversity has corrupted society. Lone parents were blamed for wayward children suggesting that without a male and female parent residing within the family unit then children would not be able to function as contributing members of society. Critics of the New Right suggest that by suggesting that the nuclear family is the only family that works for the benefit of society it ignores the dark side of the family issues such as domestic abuse and by trying to impress that the nuclear family is the superior and morally correct route it creates a them and us situation which can lead to discrimination, persecution and ultimately suggests that other family types are not families at all.(Yorkshire 2011)
According to the Office for National Statistics (2011) between 2001 and 2010 families by type have altered slightly to show that there has been a slight increase in the alternative family and a slight decrease in what is considered to be the nuclear family. As the Office of National Statistics now take into account Civil Partnerships as legitimate families the figures reflect a more accurate account of the makeup of the ever changing British family however the categories in which families are assigned do not represent a true picture of the family as it fails to differentiate between reconstituted and nuclear families, while the minority groups such as civil partnership couples and lone parents have been allocated a category of their own.
According to Morgan (1994) as cited in Marsh and Keating (2006) “We cannot speak of the family as if it were a static and changing thing. Rather it is better to use the word as signifying the character of a complex series of processes over time…we should speak of family processes, family living or family life courses. In this way we will come to recognise that family life is always subject to change and variation that change is at the very heart of family living”
As society changes with time it can be argued that the family will alter and perceptions of the family from influences such as the media and politics will change the ideology. Although the school of thought may differ depending on what perspective is applied it appears that the family plays an important role within British society, it is important to recognise that without understanding the family it makes it difficult to understand problems that may arise such as domestic violence and child abuse and how they are interpreted as private troubles or public issues.
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