Talcott Parsons (1902-79) was a key functionalist thinker. He suggested a special type of sociology called functionalism. He said that the function of anything is the job that it does. Functionalists see society as a social system made up of interrelated and inter-dependent institutions, such as education, work, religion, law, the family. The overall function of these institutions is to maintain social order. The nuclear family is suggested by the functionalist sociologists as the norm in modern industrial societies, and that it has a number of functions that contribute to the well-being of the society. The family is the primary agent of socialisation. It socialises new members by teaching them common norms and values. The family create consensus and order. Parsons (1995) argued that families are 'personality factory'; they produce children who shared same norms and values and have strong sense of belonging to society.
There are criticisms of the functionalist view of the family. The idea that the family benefits all individuals has been strongly attacked, mostly by feminist sociologists, who argue that the family is only there to exploit and oppress women. They believe that the rosy harmonious family life painted by functionalist ignores social problem such as increases in divorce rate, child abuse and domestic violence. The analyses are based on middle-class and American versions of family life, and they didn't add other influences such as ethnicity, social class, religion. They also see children as passive recipients of culture and this view under-estimates the role of children in families. In conclusion, functionalist thinking of the family suggests that biological needs support the nuclear family, even when there is no scientific evidence to support this view.
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Feminism is the sociological perspective which examines society from the perspective of women. It contrasts with traditional sociology, which was dominated by men and male concerns. There are at least four types of feminists who identify different reasons for women's unequal situation in society. They are the Marxist feminists who argued the relationship between capitalism and family, private property and the house wife role. The liberal feminist duels on the lack of equal opportunities in society. The radical feminists talk about patriarchy; this predates capitalism and present in most cultures. The difference feminists in its theory claim that certain groups of women might have unique situation that disadvantages them.
Feminists have been highly critical of the family, unlike other critics; they have tended to stress the harmful effects of family life upon women. This has led them to the development of new perspectives and highlighted new issues. They have for example, introduced the study of areas of family life such as housework and domestic violence into sociology. They have challenged the views about the inevitability of the male dominance in families and questioned the views that family life is becoming egalitarian (becoming equal). Feminists have also highlighted the economic contribution made by women domestic labour within the family. Their theory has gained the attention sociologists to see the family as an institution involving power relationship. They have challenged the image of the family life as being based on cooperation, shared interests and love. It has shown that men obtain greater benefits from families than others. Some feminists have come out to question why other feminists should condemn family life. Some have also argued that feminists should recognise the various improvements in family life for women over the past years. All feminists, however, argue that family life still disadvantages women.
The Marxist theory of the family developed from the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx believed society was made up of two important parts, the economic base or infrastructure and the superstructure, which includes the family. By economic base, Marx means the capitalist system of production and the capitalist class structure, whereas by the superstructure, Marx means the other institutions of society, the family, the education system, the mass media, the religious system, the political system and the legal system. He argued that the economic base influences the organisation of the institutions of the superstructure so that they operate to maintain the capitalist system.
Federich Engels (1884) was a close friend and colleague of Marx. He believed that early society was based on a primitive form of communism. There was no such thing as private property, wealth was communally owned, there were no rules limiting sexual behaviour and undiscriminating sexual behaviour was the norm. The society was the family. Engels believed that a monogamous nuclear family became more important as private property became more important in society. Property was owned by males and they needed to be sure of the legitimacy of their heirs (inheritors), and marriage was the best the best solution. This increased control over women or patriarchy.
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The criticism against Marxism is that there is a considerable working class support for the family and it is difficult to explain this if the family is a source of working class oppression. Families have sometimes helped their members to cope with the injustices of the capitalist system. There has being active opposition to the capitalist system, although such opposition occur only in a minority of families.
According to Talcott Parsons (1950), family structure changed as society industrialised. Families in Britain have changed over the centuries. It has changed from extended family to nuclear family. The extended family was during the pre-industrial society. People needed to have lots of relatives with them to share the family's work (such as running a farm) and to support them in sickness and old age. The big change came with the Industrial Revolution bringing in the nuclear family. The period of Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) was when modern industry based on factories developed, and people moved in large numbers from country areas to new industrial cities. Before the Industrial Revolution, it was difficult to separate home and the whole family worked together. As time changes, it was men who went to work and women just stayed home to do the cooking and cleaning.
Young and Willmott carried out studies of working-class families in London in the 1950s and 1960s. They found strong extended family networks in Bethnal Green, East London. The most important characteristic of British family today is diversity. The different types of family are the nuclear family; it is made up an adult man, adult woman and their child or children. The lone parent families are one parent, father or mother and his or her child or children. Reconstituted families are new family created after divorce through a second marriage, with stepparents and stepchildren. Co-habitation family is a name for people who live under same roof. The presence of minority ethnic groups (afro-Caribbean families and the Asian families) has also contributed to the diversity of Britain's families.
A study by Young and Willmott (1973) found that joint role had replaced separate roles in the home with tasks and decision making now shared. But Ann Oakley (1974) criticised this view and argued that separate roles still exist in the home. Stephen Edgell (2000) found that in the middle class, women had sole responsibility for financial decisions in relatively unimportant areas such as home decorating and children clothing. The decisions on major spending were made jointly.
Evidence suggests that many women have dual burden of labour, home and work responsibilities. Sociologists Mary Boulton suggests that women have additional emotional role in the home. She called it a triple burden. Studies conducted in the 90s by sociologists showed that the role of father was changing. They are more likely to attend to the birth of their babies and play greater role in childcare than in the 60s. Burghes (1997) says fathers are now more actively involved in the emotional development of their children. The reason for this, according to Beck (1992) is that father can no longer rely on jobs to provide a sense of identity, they rely more on their children for that.
Feminist have highlighted the influence of patriarch ideology on the way both husbands and wives perceive their respective situations. Ann Oakley's study, The Sociology of Housework (1974) involve forty housewives, six were employed outside the home. She found that middle class husbands gave more help with childcare than with housework. Oakley's survey has been backed by subsequent surveys. The above finding contradicts the optimistic view of Young and Willmott. Their picture of symmetrical family in which husband and wife share their work was based on responses to only one question.
Functionalists see the sexual division of labour at home as biologically inevitable. Marxist feminist argue that the housewife role serves the need of capitalism. Radical feminists believe like Delphy (1984) that the first oppression is the oppression of women by men.