Family Functions: Structural-Functional Analysis
From the functionalist point of view, the institution of the family helps meet the needs of its members and contributes to the stability of the society at large. In this view, marriage is seen as a mutually beneficial exchange between members of two genders, each of which enacts traditional gender roles, with women receiving protection, economic support, and status from their husbands and men receiving emotional and sexual support, household maintenance, and the production of children from their wives. Functionalists view the social institution of the family as breaking down under the strains being experienced by society as a result of rapid social change. From the functionalist perspective, trends such as single parent families, families with a female head of household, and the high rate of divorce that are experienced in many societies today are a result of the breakdown and disorganization of the institution of the family. There are, however, a number of serious criticisms of the functionalist perspective of the family — in particular that it does not take into account many of the realities of postmodern life.
Keywords Extended Family; Feminism; Functionalism; Gender; Gender Inequality; Gender Role; Industrialization; Norms; Nuclear Family; Postindustrial; Status; Social Change; Social Institution; Socialization; Society; Sociocultural Evolution
Family Functions: A Structural-Functional Analysis
Social scientists use the term "family" to refer to a number of different social groups. A nuclear family, for example, is defined as a married couple and their unmarried children living under one roof. This rather restricted group is called "nuclear" because it is the nucleus around which other, larger familial groups center. For example, an extended family includes the nuclear family in addition to any other family members (e.g., grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles) that live together under one roof. Although this type of family was more prevalent in previous centuries, it still occurs today and theoretically offers the family members greater social support. However, just as the percentage of extended familial living arrangements has declined over time, so, too, has the percentage of nuclear familial living arrangements, particularly in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The number of single parent families is on the rise not only in the United States, but in other postindustrial societies as well due in part to such factors as high divorce rates and the decision of some individuals to have children outside of marriage. Many people today also view committed homosexual couples as families, regardless of their legal marital status, as well as committed heterosexual couples who have chosen not to get married. The definition of "family" also becomes more complicated with divorce and remarriage, as step parents, step siblings, and half siblings are thrown into the mix.
Each of the major sociological perspectives views family in a different way. From the functionalist point of view, the institution of the family helps meet the needs of its members and contributes to the stability of the society at large. Functionalists attempt to explain the nature of social order, the relationship between the various parts (structures) in society, and their contribution to the stability of the society by examining the functionality of each to determine how it contributes to the stability of society as a whole. Functionalists also stress the importance of social institutions that are based on common values of the members of the society. Within this broad perspective, functionalists view the family as important because it meets a number of important needs of the society, including producing children to replace members that have died, socializing those children so that they act within the norms and expectations of the society, regulating sexual activity, providing physical care for family members, assigning identity to individuals, and providing psychological support and emotional security to its members. According to functionalists, marriage — which they see as the sine qua non of the family — is a mutually beneficial exchange between members of two genders. From the functionalist perspective, within the social institution of marriage, women receive protection, economic support, and status from their husbands and men receive emotional and sexual support, household maintenance, and the production of children from their wives. In this traditional view of marriage and family, functionalists also view family as the primary place in which children are cared for and taught the values of the society.
Functions of the Family
According to functionalists, there are six major functions of the family.
- The family is a social institution in which it is socially acceptable to reproduce. This function of the family helps to repopulate the society and replace members who have died.
- The family is the societal unit in which the norms of sexual behavior are most clearly defined. Although the norms of sexual behavior may change over time or across cultures, within any given temporal and cultural situation, it is the family that best defines these norms.
- Functionalists posit that family is important because it offers protection to its members. Certainly, young humans need social and economic support as well as constant care in order to survive and become contributing members of society. The family is the venue in which much of this takes place. Although other social institutions (e.g., school, church) may contribute to the rearing of the children of a society, it is within the family that the primary responsibility remains.
- Families act as a socializing agent that monitors the behavior of its members (particularly its children), and teaches them to differentiate between what the society regards as acceptable versus unacceptable behavior and act in a manner that is appropriate for the needs of the society.
- The family unit offers affection and companionship to its members, thereby helping them to feel secure and satisfied. Other social institutions provide these rewards as well, of course. However, according to functionalists, although other institutions may provide some rewards on occasion, family members expect to receive these within the family (e.g., one tends to expect one's family to help out in a crisis or to comfort one in times of need).
- Families provide social status to their members. One's initial position within a society is a result of the social standing and status of one's family. In addition, the resources of the family help one attain a higher social status through allowing one to take advantages of higher education or other opportunities that allow one to attain the position in society that one desires.
In addition to these six major functions, families fulfill numerous other functions. However, these are more likely to evolve over time than are the major functions discussed above. For example, before the institution of centralized school systems, much of the education of a society's young took place in the home. Today, however, in most societies children are schooled in public or private institutions that, at least in theory, enable them to receive a better or more standardized education that will better socialize them and help them acquire the skills and knowledge that are deemed important by the society. Similarly, at one time, much of the religious education of children and even the continuing religious activities of individuals took place within the family (e.g., family devotions including Bible reading and prayer). However, increasingly, responsibility for these activities has shifted to religious institutions and away from the family. Even recreational activities that were once the primary purview of the family are now frequently offered by other groups such as sports leagues, health clubs, and other groups.
According to the functionalist perspective, societal change has a negative impact on the family by weakening the consensus on which it is based. As a result, during times of societal transition, families become disorganized and do not well meet their traditional purposes. In contemporary Western postmodern society, for example, many functionalists view the social institution of the family as breaking down under the strains being experienced by society as a result of rapid social change. According to functionalists, these changes often result in a shift in the functions typically carried out by the family to other social institutions. For example, just as social change in earlier generations caused a shift in...
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