Family Functions: Symbolic Interactionism
This article focuses on family functions as seen through a symbolic interactionist perspective. This article explores the sociology of family functions in four parts: an overview of the field of family studies; a description of symbolic interactionism and the family; a discussion of the ways in which sociologists apply the symbolic interactionist perspective to family behavior; and an exploration of the issues associated with using any single theoretical approach to analyze complex family situations, motivations, and outcomes. Understanding how symbolic interactionism is used to examine family functions is vital for all those interested in the sociology of family and relationships.
Keywords ABCX Model; Family Functions; Family Studies; Roles; Social-Conflict Theory; Social-Exchange Theory; Socialization; Society; Sociology; Symbolic Interactionism
Family Functions: Symbolic Interactionism
Sociologists study the functions that families serve for individuals and society as whole. Common family functions include teaching, socialization, nurturance, care-taking, feeding, protection, emotional support, resource sharing, and shelter. Sociologists, and social scientists in general, analyze family functions with and through different theoretical lenses or perspectives. For instance, sociologists use the theory of symbolic interactionism to understand how families create meaning. Social scientists who apply a symbolic interactionist perspective to family studies may examine the socialization process, role performance, identity formation, and meaning formation within the family.
Understanding how symbolic interactionism is used to examine family functions is vital for all those interested in the sociology of family and relationships. This article explores the sociology of family functions in four parts:
• An overview of the field of family studies
• A description of symbolic interactionism and the family
• A discussion of the ways in which sociologists apply the symbolic interactionist perspective to family behavior
• An exploration of the issues associated with using any single theoretical approach to analyze complex family situations, motivations, and outcomes
The field of family studies, also referred to as family science or family sociology, was established in the early twentieth century by sociologists such as Ernest Burgess, Talcott Parsons, Florian Znaniecki, William Thomas, Willard Waller, and Reuben Hill. Sociologist Ernest W. Burgess (1886–1966), who was interested in the process of social prediction, developed schemes to predict marriage success. Burgess's work on the study of marriage and family remains influential. The family, as an object of study for the sociologist, became extremely popular and important in the early twentieth century (Spanier & Stump, 1978). In the 1950s, sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902–1979) advanced the idea that the nuclear family is a social institution whose functions are determined by a functionally organized society. Sociologists believed that a family's function, purpose, and performance would be determined by factors such as a society's gendered division of labor. Mid-century sociology furthered the belief that a nuclear family was the ideal family form or construct.
Parsons's concept of the collectivity, a term which refers to distinct human groups united by shared social structures, identity, and customs, influenced sociological conception and understanding of the family unit. Parsons defined the parameters and characteristics necessary to create collectivities. For example, Parsons believed that a group must have loyalty toward the members and the group. Examples of loyalty include attachments, rights to relational rewards, and a commitment to act based on a system of shared standards and symbols. Parsons considers attachment to refer to a generalized system of expectations with regard to the gratifications to be received from a category of persons and generally favorable attitudes toward the qualities and performances associated with them. Members must accept the preservation of the collectivity as a moral obligation. Families often display this level of moral commitment. Parsons argued that members of a collective must develop a system of sanctions to direct behavior. The system should stress certain actions as desirable and identify other actions as hostile to and ultimately incompatible with the collective (Treudley, 1953).
Changing Family Situations
In the 1960s, family studies, led by social scientists Harold Christensen and Ira Reiss, became increasingly liberal in its choice of research topics. For instance, researchers began to study the function and effects of premarital sex and cohabitation. In the 1970s, family sociology recognized and studied the changing trends in families such as premarital sex, cohabitation, divorce, extramarital sex, homosexual relationships, childlessness, single mothers, step-families, open marriages, and group marriages. Sociologists developed and accepted the idea of an alternative lifestyle or family. Family sociology began to recognize the importance of applying integrated models, theories, and perspectives to understand complex family relationships in society. In the 1980s, family sociology continued to focus on alternative families and individuation. Multiple competing family models emerged to account for the diversity of modern and postmodern families. In the 1990s, family sociology recognized the existence of the postmodern family that defies categorization with its diffuse boundaries and evolving composition.
Family studies' changing subjects reflect the changes occurring in society. Families changed throughout the twentieth century as a result of immigration, modernization, world wars, civil rights, and women's rights. Sociologists have analyzed and reported on the evolution of the traditional or functional family, liberal family, alternative family, and the postmodern family. Family sociologists study a wide range of family relations and family structures. Examples include marriage across life span, mate selection, sexual behavior, parenthood, family planning, retirement, sex roles, divorce, premarital sexual relations, contraception, cohabitation, extramarital sexual relations, homosexual relationships, group marriage, open marriage, adoption, voluntary childlessness, communal living, single parent households, and step families (Jallinoja, 1994).
Researchers use different, and sometimes multiple, theoretical lenses or perspectives to analyze families. The symbolic interactionist perspective has been used to understand how families make shared meaning since the beginning of family studies in the early 1900s. Symbolic interactionism studies the meanings of social exchanges and interactions and asserts that individuals find meaning through interaction with their social and physical environment. The human mind, as conceived in the symbolic interaction framework, filters, interprets, interacts, symbolizes, values, reflects, conceptualizes, and defines to make meaning. Symbolic interactionism is concerned with self-images, roles, interaction, and meaning making and focuses on reward and cost in relation to perceived meaning and interpretation. Symbolic interactionism also focuses on how individuals use symbols to create meaning in their lives and society. Symbolic interactionism examines face-to-face and mediated interactions in groups and societies. With its focus on meaning and interpreting, symbolic interactionism explains how individuals define exchange, rewards, and cost in their daily lives. The symbolic interaction framework includes two main branches: the Chicago School and the Iowa School.
The Interactionist Perspective
The theory of symbolic interactionism is based on the theory of interactionism. The theory of interactionism, developed by George Hebert Mead, Herbert Blumer, and Anthony Giddens, is a sociological theory that studies and locates meaning within the self in social interaction. Interactionism advances the notion that individuals are social actors who can influence society. The interactionist approach or perspective, which focuses on the development and experience of the self, finds meaning within the moment of contact between two or more actors. Interactionism, which employs an interpretive methodology, attempts to understand how individual realities, values, perceptions, feelings, and behaviors influence interactions and meaning making.
Sociologist Herbert Blumer (1900–1987) advanced the theory of symbolic interactionism in sociological thought and practice. Building on the work of his mentor, George Herbert Mead, Blumer's symbolic interactionism locates meaning in social interactions. According...
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