Sociology Of The Family : 01 Changes and Definitions

The sociology of the family has three main theoretical traditions. These are structural-functionalism, symbolic interactionism and conflict theories that include feminism. Some of these traditions are overlapping and to separate them is somewhat of an artifice, but for the sake of clarity, this section of the paper describes them as if they were stand-alone bodies of theory and research.

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While structural functionalism was the dominant theoretical perspective, particularly in North America, during the 1950s and 1960s, functionalist theories of the family have since been highly critiqued, not least because they provide little consideration of alternative family forms or family pathologies, other than to argue that such variations are either inherently “dysfunctional” or fulfil some latent function in broader society. Furthermore, functionalist theories tend to justify the sexual division of labour, and ignore gender inequalities inherent in Parson’s “complementary roles” structure.

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This section of the paper is limited to covering the main theoretical traditions of “modern sociology”, while highlighting a selection of key areas in which there is particular interest in the family. A discussion of the post-modern critiques of sociology is included at the end of this section.

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Functionalist theories in sociology explain social institutions like the family primarily in terms of the functions they perform (Jary and Jary 1991). Functionalism begins with the observation that behaviour in society is structured, and that relationships between individuals are organised in terms of rules and are therefore patterned and recurrent. Functionalists then examine the relationship between the different parts of the structure and their relationship to society as a whole. At its simplest, functionalism focuses on effects such as the effect of the family on other parts of the social structure and on society as a whole. Generally, however, a functionalist analysis includes an examination of the contribution an institution makes to the maintenance and survival of the social system. For example, in simplistic terms, a major function of the family is the socialisation of new members of society.

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The structural-functionalist perspective of the family, closely associated with Parsons, focuses on the family and its relationship to society (McLennan, Ryan and Spoonley 2000). Parsons (1951) argued that the family fulfils a number of functions within society, but identified two of these as key. The first was the socialisation of children into the appropriate values and norms of society. Focusing on North American culture in particular, Parsons theorised that the role of the family was to ensure that independence and a motivation to achieve was instilled in children’s personalities. The second function of the family was the stabilisation of the adult personality through marriage, which served as the antidote to the emotional stresses and strains of everyday life.