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From the structural-functionalist perspective, marriage and family are a very basic building block of society. From this perspective, these institutions exist because they are necessary for a stable society. Marriage and family perform a number of necessary functions. For example, they provide a structure in which children can be produced and raised. They also provide a way in which sexual relations can be in some way regulated so that people can fulfill their sexual desires without causing conflict. Finally, they give people a way to feel loved and to feel a sense of belonging. This makes people more likely to be good and productive members of society.
To the conflict perspective, things are much less rosy. These sociologists would see marriage as the outgrowth of conflict between men and women. They would say that marriage and family, as practiced in our society, tend to subjugate women to some degree. Although this may be changing, marriage and family have, they would say, traditionally been a way for men to maintain their dominance.
From the symbolic interactionist perspective, every marriage is different. Marriage is, essentially, what people make of it. There can be marriages in which one of the partners feels subjugated to the other. However, there can also be marriages in which the partners fulfill and complete one another. Symbolic interactionism is a very micro-level perspective and so it sees marriage as something that differs from relationship to relationship.
The sociological perspective called symbolic interactionism focuses on symbols that affect people's interactions. In this perspective, the symbols related to marriage are important determinants of the way people view marriage and family and the meanings that they make of marriage and family. For example, the brides' white dress, the wedding ring, and the large party that are features of many traditional western weddings imply that marriage is for the long term (though, in reality, this may not be the case) and that the marriage involves the bringing together of two families. The traditional practice, not followed by all brides today, in which women assume their husbands' last names is also a symbol of the expectation that marriage is a long-term commitment that brings the families together.
In the functionalist perspective, each part of society interacts in a process that involves interdependence. In this perspective, society comes to a consensus about what will promote the greater good and functions to promote this good. In the functionalist perspective, the wellbeing of married couples and the family is supported by institutions such as schools, government, community, and religious programs. Families contribute to these organizations via taxes, money, and other forms of support so that institutions and families are working together to promote the greater good. Functionalists might also analyze the rising rate of divorce over the past several decades as a sign that married couples, which once worked together on farms or in other capacities, no longer need to work together to survive but can live independently from each other.
The conflict perspective, inspired by the writings of Karl Marx, focuses on the conflicts in society brought about by the struggle for limited resources and the way in which conflict can be created to create social change. In this perspective, poor families might be seen as victims of the social structure created by the rich. Conflict theorists might view the rising rate of divorce as the result of women's finally gaining access to jobs and money that were formerly granted only to men.
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