Household and Family Studies

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05 March 2013 Lecture Notes

THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES ON HOUSEHOLDS AND FAMILY STUDIES

Functionalist Perspective

Functionalist theories are macro in nature and focus on the structural properties and functions of the family system. They are based on the idea that if a society is to survive and operate with some measure of effectiveness, it has to ensure that specific functions are performed. Although families change constantly, they fulfill recurrent functions in society. Societies are seen as systems of interrelated and interdependent parts (called institutions) which have a built-in tendency to adapt to each other in order for society as a whole to be in equilibrium or balance. The various parts or institutions of society are seen as performing specific functions that contribute to the adaptation, goal attainment, integration, latency (pattern maintenance and tension control) and continuity of the whole. This means that certain social institutions (like families) are responsible for performing certain functions. The focus is on how the different parts of the system fit together; how they integrate with each other on the basis of moral consensus. Change in one part of the system leads to change in the other parts. It is seen as slow and evolutionary, and results from processes like urbanization and industrialization. Seen from this general functionalist viewpoint, the emphasis is on the importance of the family in maintaining the stability of society and the wellbeing of individuals. The family is therefore regarded as a part/an institution of society that functions in relation to the other parts/institutions of society. Haralambos and Holborn (2000:508) maintain that an analysis of the family from a functionalist perspective involves the following three interrelated questions.

(1) What are the functions of the family for society?
(2) What are the functional relationships between the family and other parts of the social system? (3) What are the functions of the family for its individual members?

For functionalist theorists such as Parsons and Murdock, the family is adaptive and functional both for its individual members and for society as a whole. In this regard they stress the importance of the nuclear family (a basic family unit that consists of two parents and their own or adopted children) for the stability, integration and perpetuation of the existing social order. The family is viewed as vital to and the most basic (primary) institution in society. Functionalist sociologists view families as “systems of interrelated and interdependent parts” (Elliot 1986:9). This means that each part (family member) has a specific function to fulfill in order for the family to continue to exist in a consensual and orderly fashion. Functionalism tends to presume that the family functions in ways that maintain its continuity and the overall stability and integration of society. However, “when societies experience disruption and change, institutions such as the family become disorganized, weakening the social consensus around which they have formed” (Andersen & Taylor 2002:423). This means that social change causes other institutions (like education) to take over some of the socialization functions that were originally reserved for families. The diminishing of family functions produces further social disorganization (like divorce), since families no longer integrate members properly into society (Andersen & Taylor 2002:423). Functionalist theorists acknowledge that family structures inevitably change as societies change. Different societal forms emphasize different family functions. For example, pre-industrial and the more modern, industrial societies demand different functions from the family. It is argued in particular that, with the disintegration of extended families and wider kin groups in pre-industrial societies, the nuclear family has adapted to the “loss of wider functions” in industrial societies by...
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