This essay will discuss the role of the family within society and individually, the nature and structure of the family and discuss the changing roles and relationships within the family. It will also consider theories from Functionalists, the New Right, Marxists and Feminists when demonstrating how the family has become more varied. The family is one of the oldest institutions in society and one of the first subjects that sociologists studied. The archetypal view of the family is Mum, Dad and children, known as the nuclear family. Although that was more common in the 1950s, as our society has changed and adapted due to divorce, recognition of gay civil marriages and more freedom of choice, the family now has a variety of forms such as single parents, gay couples, extended families and reconstituted families.
George Murdock, a Functionalist, conducted a survey in 1949 called Social Structure to ascertain whether a form of family existed universally. He compared 250 societies and found that although they varied greatly, there were types of family found in each society and concluded that the family was universal. Murdock defined the family as a social group characterised by common residence, economic co-operation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children, own or adopted, of the sexually cohabiting adults’ (1949). Murdock saw the nuclear family as the core with other modes of family branching from that, for example, the extended family where grandparents or other close relatives live in the same household or nearby.
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However, Kathleen Gough(1959) documented that in the Nayar society, girls before puberty were ritually married to a suitable Nayar man in the tali rite, and however once after the marriage, the tali husband is under no obligation to live with his wife or to have any contact with her. The only duty that the tali wife has is to attend her husband’s funeral to mourn his death. Then once the girl reached puberty, she could take visiting husbands with the visiting husband leaving his weapons outside the building to show other husbands that he was there. This highlighted that Murdock’s definition and functions of the family did not apply and were therefore either too narrow or that the family is not universal. Murdock also saw the family as having four functions, sexual, reproductive, economic and educational. He believed that if sex was within a marriage it can strengthen the family unit as the emotions that accompany this unite husband and wife.
As Western society is monogamous this then stabilises society and prevents promiscuity. He also maintained that children should be born within the marriage and then children could be taught to be good member of society. It also meant that the family was financially responsible for themselves. Talcott Parsons (1959) argued that there are two functions within the family emphasised more on children. They are ‘primary socialisation’, the family is where children first learn what is normal in their own culture and how to develop their own personality, and ‘stabilisation of adult roles’ where married partners can provide the emotional support which helps to counteract the stresses of everyday life. This also allows the adults to indulge in childish behaviour with their children which also help stress relief. Parsons called this the ‘warm bath theory’ where the mother is at the helm and the family provide a warm, comfortable and secure environment. Parsons viewed the family as the best solution to coping with industrial society.
In the nuclear family, the husband can go out to work, taking on the role of breadwinner, whilst the mother assumes the role of the carer, staying at home to look after children and carry out household duties. Therefore functionalists believe the family provides important functions not only individually but for the family as an institution and for society as a whole. Functionalists see the nuclear family positively and hold the view that society is a set of social institutions working together to perform specific functions. However, Marxists disagreed with this notion; Engels (1884) believed that the nuclear family evolved through various stages bringing with it the beginning of ownership of private property, particularly the ability to own private means of production and the emergence of the state and laws to enforce monogamous marriage and protect the system of private property.
This allowed the capitalists to ensure the paternity of their offspring making them natural heirs (Engles 1884). However, like functionalists, Marxists believe that the family reproduces and socialises children but for differing reasons. Eli Zaretsky (1976) claimed that the modern capitalist society created the illusion that the family is able to provide warmth and support, whereas, in reality, he felt that it was not equipped well enough to cope with the psychological and personal needs of individuals. Marxists also argue that the capitalist system is based on the domestic labour of housewives who reproduce future generations of workers and teach children to not aspire to greater things. The family also consumes the fruits of capitalism, therefore, allowing the ruling class to profit. Marxists and Functionalists neglect to take into account that families can be a dangerous place to be for children and women, the darker side of the family, such as violence and abuse and that there are possible variations to families such as social classes, ethnicity, lone-parent families and gay or lesbian families.
Many Feminists questioned the idea that the family is a group with common support and shared interests and have instead suggested that there is an unequal balance within the family which means that men benefit more than women. Feminists also believe that the family is patriarchal and that women are suppressed and exploited. After the Second World War, in an attempt to get women out of the workforce, the ideal family image was promoted, also known as the ‘cereal packet’ image by Edmund Leach (1967). However, as society has changed over the last decade, more women are taking on the ‘dual burden’ doing the housework and working in paid employment outside the home (Gershuny et al. 1994; Hochschild 1989; Sullivan 1997). Feminists feel that domestic labour is unpaid and that women are still being fooled by the societal image of the ideal family. Studies show that women within the family are the primary carer, for example, if a child is unwell it will be the woman who takes time off work to care for the child.
Also, women tend to put their family first in terms of spending money whereas men will buy items for themselves. Delphy and Leonard (1992) believe that women make a much bigger contribution to family life yet receive fewer of the material benefits. Nevertheless, Feminists ignore the fact that women may actively choose to stay at home and bring up children, seeing it as a rewarding vocation and that this may have been a decision between husband and wife due to financial restrictions as it is still not possible for a man to have paid paternity leave. Also, Feminists do not seem to recognise that there has been changing, for example, more men are helping out with the housework and that children are also being encouraged to help. They have also promoted equal rights for women in society, beginning with Suffragettes and the right to vote, which may have influenced how a family looks today.
Diversity within the family is more prevalent today as family units such as lone parents, same-sex families and reconstituted families become more acceptable. Gittins (1993) suggested that just because a family looks different from the traditional nuclear family, this does not mean that it is abnormal. It has been suggested that increasing divorce rates and co-habitation have contributed to diversity within the family structure (Boh, 1989). It was extremely difficult to divorce up until the Divorce Reform Act was introduced in 1969 and came into effect in 1971, this then heralded a change of attitude with no attribution to blame. Functionalists argue that marriage breakdown occurs as people have higher expectations of marriage, seeing it in terms of ‘love’ rather than a domestic arrangement to rear children. Barlow et al (2001) conducted a British Social Attitudes Survey which highlighted that people still have high regard for marriage itself but may have found aspects of the marriage more unacceptable now than they may have done in the past.
Feminists have welcomed the choice for women to leave an unhappy marriage and suggest that women are disillusioned with the traditional marriage as most divorce petitions are filed by women. In the past women were trapped in unhappy marriages with very few options. With the introduction of state benefits, fairer divorce settlements and greater opportunities for women at work, they now have greater independence. However, Feminists do not take into account the effect that divorce and lone-parent families can have on children. Studies show that there is a negative effect on children who grow up in a lone parent family. Rodgers and Pryor (1998) conducted a study of 200 children and found that they have a tendency to suffer from behavioural and/or emotional problems. However, E.E. Cashmore (1985) argued that it is better for children to live in a family with one caring parent rather than two parents who are unhappy in marriage.
Cashmore believed that single parenthood can have its attractions, particularly for mothers since as Feminists suggest, family life may benefit men more than women. Crow and Hardy (1992) highlighted that although lone-parent families only have one parent living with children, the other parent may still have influence and financial support for the family, and therefore, they preferred to call it a lone parent household instead. Studies also show that the average time spent as a lone parent family is 5 years, making it a transitory stage and that very few women actually choose to become a lone parent (Berthoud 1999). With the option of easier divorce comes the increase of lone-parent families. Unlike Feminists, the New Right maintain that high divorce rates and the increase in lone-parent families are a threat to social stability indicating a direct link between the rising crime amongst young men who do not have a father figure to provide discipline and authority.
They also believe that laws should be stricter with regards to divorce and that the traditional nuclear family should be promoted within government policies. To support this, the Financial Secretary stated ‘I will propose suitable measures in this Budget to help build a harmonious, family-based society’ (February 27, 2008). So, as divorce rates have increased, a new type of family has become more popular due to remarriages, the reconstituted family, also known as step-families. Haskey (1994) described this as ‘a married or cohabiting couple with dependant children, at least one of whom is not the biological offspring of both partners ‘. The advantages to the reconstituted family are an extended family whereby both parents contribute towards the children. Also, there is more support for example; a stepdaughter may find it easier to converse with a stepmother rather than her own mother.
Stepsiblings could also provide good role models. But, certain difficulties will also arise; a biological parent who still has an influential involvement with the children may make life more difficult within the new family. The parents may have differing ideas on how to raise their children, thereby causing marital conflict. Stepsiblings may feel pushed out or jealous of each other. There is little research into the reconstituted family as it is still fairly recent; however, statistics show that this type of family will outnumber the nuclear family by 2010, thus making it the ‘norm’. Similarly, there has been an increase in the amount of gay and lesbian families due to a wider acceptance and a change in law and the introduction of civil partnerships. Weeks, Heaphy and Donovan (1999) commented that there is more equality between partners because they do not have the same social and cultural assumptions that a heterosexual family has.
For example, the division of labour and emotional support are shared, unlike the nuclear family where women do the majority of the housework. Also, Fitzgerald (1999) showed that children raised in a gay or lesbian family were not affected; all that mattered was the relationship between the parents and the children. To conclude, some theorists such as Functionalists and the New Right feel that the family is collapsing with modern liberal thinking and a more open attitude towards gay and lesbian relationships, cohabitation and lone-parent families. They suggest that the traditional family should be reinstated; however, Feminists see the change in the family as a welcome advance enabling freedom of choice for women as they can decide whether to live alone with children or cohabit with their partner before or ever entering into marriage. Ultimately, theorists generally believe that whether diversity within the family is desirable or not, changes within the family are a reflection of society today.