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Sociological Perspectives on the Family

3236 words (13 pages) Essay in Sociology

04/10/17 Sociology Reference this

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Sociology and the family


This essay will focus on two sociology theories, which are the family life cycle and the functionalist approach. It will give a brief overview of each theory. The essay will go on to apply theory to practice, as this essay will make reference to a service user with a “sudo name” known as “Sean”, to up hold confidentiality. While applying the family life cycle to the particular service user, this essay will critique the theories strengths and limitations.

In applying the functionalist approach, this essay will highlight how the family is seen as an institution in its self and how other institutions inter play in the service user’s life. The theories used in this essay will highlight areas which apply to the service user and areas in which the theory lacks understanding of the complex situations. Conclusion will be drawn.

Overview of each theory

According to Falicov (1988, p. 9) the family life cycle has been applied widely to social science, he explains that the ‘life course of families evolves through predictable stages which appear universal in spite of one’s culture or subculture’. Family transits to different stages as form of continuity and changes over the life cycle. Falicov identifies two main aspects to the family life cycle, which are cohesion and adaptability (Falicov1988, p. 9).

The cohesion relates to the interdependence parts of one’s life and adaptability refers to the flexibility of the family to change, in this the family cycle essentially focuses on a child’s transition into adulthood within a family setting (Falicov, C. 1988, p. 9). As family goes through its continuity phase and changes, there’s a need for the role of each member in the family to be recognised. Claveirole, A & Gaughan, M. (2011) defines the family life cycle as a developmental way of looking at families; it provided a framework for an individual’s development of family members and the cycle itself is influenced by socio – cultures developments outside the family.

 Falicov, C. (1988, p. 13) says the family life cycle is a subject to mirror timing and coping strategies. Carter, E.A & McGoldrick, M. (1999) supports this concept as they stated the family cycle is really one’s individual life cycle, which changes and moves in a framework within the structure of a family. This theory takes into account that one’s framework is structured by the families past, present and future hopes for an individual introduced into the family life cycle. The family life cycle highlights the fact that one’s experiences within the family life cycle impacts on our sense of self, for example the values we produce and the development of our personalities. This applies to each individual despite the structure, qualities of relationships or genetics of one’s family. The family has a responsibility to provide what’s known as a natural baseline for an individual to grow physically, mentally, socially and emotionally, it also holds responsibility for the social institutions in which will affect the growth of the individual i.e. schools and church they may attend. The family life cycle it-self is broken into six parts, which are: Independence (second order changes), coupling (with or without marriage and synergy), parenting young children (participating in reproduction), parenting adolescents, launching adult children and retirement (facing senior years). Each stage contains mastering certain skills or milestones and once this is achieved it allows for the next stage to be developed.

There are many ways to study the family which creates many different perspectives. One of these ways is through the functionalist approach. The functionalist approach focuses on the relationship between the family and society. When looking at the family the functionalist approach studies the function in which the family severs to society, such as reproduction and stabilization. Shaws 2002 explains the development of the functionalist approach stating that the perspective emerged as a leading theoretical model, mainly in the area of sociology as three well known sociologists influenced the model. Wallace and Wolf (1995, p.76) defines functionalism, as a whole theoretical perspective, which takes into account four main areas, which are ‘Functional Independence in maintaining social structure, Collective norms to maintain social order/ stability, Societal equilibrium in areas of conformity, adjustments and consensus, along with social constituents and finally Social Pathology and deviance which have resulted from maladjustments of social units’.

The functionalist perspective studies society on two levels called Macro and Micro. Macro focuses on society as a whole, polices, services and the community in general. Micro focuses on the individual, the family and reproduction system. The functionalist approach realizes society is broken into institutions. Institutions are defined by Giddens (1984, p.24) ‘as the more enduring social features in life’. The main institution in society is the family, O’Sullivan (2012, p.1) define the family as a natural, primary and fundamental unit group in society a ‘moral institution that possesses inalienable and imprescriptibly rights’. It is the nuclear family (a couple with a depended child or children) that’s a core unit in all types of society. The usefulness of a family in society is limitless in many ways, for example socialization and social order and so by seen the family as a whole in society, it provided changes in society as the needs of family changed, but creating change depends on how societies are governed/run. In support of this is Fletcher (1973) who states the role of the family in terms of socialization and social order falls into two categories which are satisfying human needs and purposes and providing a functional interconnection with the wider social networks of society (school, church).

Overview of the client & family circumstances

Sean is a male aged 27 years. He has an intellectual disability and has attended services for those who have an intellectual disability all his life. World Health Organisation (2014) define intellectual disability as extensively reduction on one’s capability to be aware of information and to learn and apply new skills, in this, individuals are affected to cope independently as the disability have affected their development. Sean is now in a service that promotes independence for those who have an intellectual disability. Sean lives in rural Dublin, a partly disadvantaged area. He lacks motivation and self confidence. He has the capacity to physically work in certain areas and has work for a short period of time. He had the capacity to write and read, but has never been assisted appropriately in the area and is now restricted to learn. He has a great knowledge about current affairs and enjoys talking about this with people he knows. He has a passion for music and one of his hobbies is listening to music. He grew up in a family of three boys who are younger than him, his mother and father. One of Sean brothers pasted away due to tragic accident. The family members are very supportive and its clear Sean has a strong attachment to them.

Critique of strengths & limitations of each theory in relation to the particular client & family

Limitations of the family life cycle

The family life cycle does not take into account the fact that an individual can “skip” or progress to another step without fulfilling each step as a sequence. For example in Sean’s case he hasn’t fully transitioned out of the independence stage but has committed to a new social system which is attending his work on a daily basis. He has also started at the independence stage and may skip past the coupling, parenting and launching children stages and still reach his senior years. The family life cycle can be studied and understood from two perspectives; a limitation to this is that in general it focused more on the family perspective. For example in Sean case he has an intellectual disability, but up until Sean started attending the service which promotes independence his perspective wasn’t accounted for. The independence stage highlights one gaining their identity within the family and outside the family unfortunately for Sean this transition has become difficult and is still a working progress, because in the area of gaining roles and learning the rules within the family Sean gain a role of depended, even in areas he had the capacity to be independent for example making a sandwich or buying himself new clothes. The rules underlining this depend behavior was never challenged and from a family perspective is understood as they wanted to care for Sean in the best way they taught. Caring for Sean in this way would have also become a norm for the family, as he is depended on the family for other things such as transport.

The family life cycle was limited as the understanding of the stages wasn’t promoted or applied specifically to Sean case (a person with an intellectual disability). In general the family life cycle is implemented as best practice, when really it should be implemented generally and globally for families as a clear outline of one’s transitions. In Sean’s case if the family understood when he was born that he needed to transition though these stages (for a positive/ practical future) to the best of his capacity even with an intellectual disability then he could have reached his full potential for example reading, writing living more independently which would benefit him and his family, as the family will reach their retirement and senior years and Sean would have learnt the basic life skills which he needs at a more practical time and he would have become less depended on the family and became more confident and motivated in his everyday life.

Strengths of the family life cycle

The family life cycle strength is that it highlights one’s life cycle in general. In Sean’s case he will reach his senior year, in this the life cycle insures that one builds on each stage to the best of their capacity so they reach their full potential as individuals. Working with Sean gives him the opportunity to develop as a person and live his life in the way in which he chooses. For example he acknowledges now that he want to become more independent and aspire to how his younger brothers are living and by applying the family life cycle to best practice and the family it gives him the opportunity to so accordingly.

The independence stage is defined by My Health Albert (2014) as the most critical stage of the family life cycle. It is a stage where one begins separate emotionally from the family and in Sean’s case he is doing by speaking out on how he feels and by participating in such activities as buying himself everything’s like food and treating himself to DVD’s. However, the family life cycle begins when a child is born; therefore the life cycle gave Sean the chance to be able to work on the stages even at a later stage in life. For example Sean is 27 years of age and its now he’s working intensely towards the other stages of the family life cycle and even though some stages may not apply to him its only a benefit for him to be able to work towards the ones he is capable of reaching with support from services and his family.

Limitations of the functionalist approach

A limitation to the functionalist approach is the ideal or overly harmonious image of the family, one in which is well integrated, holding social order and socialization. It doesn’t provide a practical image of the stresses and difficulties in which the traditional family go through. For example Sean was the first child born into the family and he had an intellectual disability. This could have distorted the ideal image/norm/traditional of what the couple had expected with the birth of their first child. The functionalist approach does not consider the alternatives ways for the couple to provide the basic care for a child with an intellectual disability. For example in Sean case, the functionalist approach doesn’t highlighted the importance of services provided for a couple with a child who has an intellectual disability, as the couple may need to depend earlier on services such as the health services to guide them in providing the best care for Sean.

The services would have to be integrated in Sean case at a earlier level which this approach does not highlight, for example they could provide information in the area of intellectual disabilities, enrolling him in appreciate school, integrating him into society. In the area of developing institutions functionalist says it’s developed out of satisfying the human needs through fulfilling and organizing various human social needs, in Sean case he hasn’t been fulfilled academically, such as reading and writing and his social needs also lack as the hasn’t intergraded or participated in areas of his choice. The various ways in which the functionalist approach organizes and institutionalizes the human needs is ultimately creating social structure in society, although it does create order it’s not the best approach to practice as it creates stigma around such areas as intellectual disability for example Sean had the capacity to attend mainstream school but due to the fact he had an intellectual disability he attended a special needs school. The stigma from institutionalizing those who have an intellectual disability promoted the idea they didn’t have the capacity to make decisions for themselves (social norm) or to participate in activities including intimate relationships, for example Sean has the capacity to make a decision for himself but due to the influence/ norms of the family and society he wasn’t given the opportunity.

Strengths of the functionalist approach

The strength of the functionalist approach is the fact it highlights the importance of services for families caring for children. In Sean case he was able to attend services in which provided the best care for those who have an intellectual disability at the time. It highlights the importance of family and even with the services interacting with the family; the family fundamentally provide the basic fundamental care. The family provide the values and norms for the individual and they take responsibility to intergraded their children into the community, for example Sean attend the service regularly as the family provide the transport for him, Sean father encourages Sean to go to the movies and participate in music as he has a passion for music. Sean own value shine through as he completes such things as spending money, a value in which relates to his home environment and where he was brought up. As society grows, the social needs become greater, which in turn gives minority groups a voice. The functionalist approach appreciates and highlights these changes. Once highlight the changes can be implemented into lawmaking systems, it can develop the political system and education system.

In the case of Sean he can voice his opinion and make decisions for himself, due to the rights provided by policies which have been amended. An example of this would be the work done around the issues of sexuality and relationships for those who have an intellectual disability. The Irish Sex Education Network has the primary aim to promote a high professional standard in the area of sex education for those who have an intellectual disability (Allen and Seery 2002, p.3)


In conclusion to this essay has given a brief over view of two sociological perspectives, which are the family life cycle and the functionalist approach. In reference to these theories it has applied a practice based example, in which it gives an in depth review of the strengths and limitations of the each theory.

In reference to the family life cycle, it highlights the different stages in which Sean has progressed through and ones he could work towards with support. The family life cycle helps predict stages in which the service user will not be able to transition into due to lack of support from family and the services provided and in general because their capacity won’t allow.

In applying the functionalist perspective, it highlights the interaction of the family and the services available for those who have an intellectual disability. It highlights how this interaction is of up most important to better the quality of life for service users.


Allen, M. & Seery, D. (2002) The Current Status of Sex Education Practice For People with an Intellectual Disability In Ireland, [Online] Dublin: Irish Sex Education Network. Available at: [Accessed 27 January 2014]

American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (2013) Intellectual Disability [Online] Available at: [Accessed 1 February 2014]

Carter, E.A & McGoldrick, M (1999) The expanded family life cycle: individual, family, and social perspectives, Boston : Allyn and Bacon

Claveirole, A and Gaughan, M. (2011) Understanding Children and Young People’s Mental Health: United Kingdom:John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Falicov, C.J (1988) Family Transitions: Continuity and Change over the Life Cycle, New York: The Guilford Press

Fletcher, R (1978) The Family and Marriage in Britian: An analysis and moral assessment,Virgina: Penguin

Giddens, A. (1984) The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration, United States of America: The University of California Press

O’Sullivan, D. (2012) A Critical Analysis of the protection of families under the Irish Constitution of 1937 [Online] Dublin: Colr .Available at: [Accessed 29 January 2014]

My Health Albert (2014) Family life cycle: Independence Stage [Online] available at Accessed 5 January 2014

Shaw V.N, (2002) Substance Use and Abuse: Sociological Perspectives United States of America: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc

Wallace, R. A and Wolf, A. (1995) Contemporary Sociological Theory: Continuing the Classical Tradition, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

World Health Organisation (2014) Intellectual Disability, [Online] Available at: [Accessed on 5th March 2014]

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