Outline & discuss the function of families in contemporary UK society
The definition of the term ‘family’ has somewhat gone through radical changes over the past few decades in the UK, some 30 years ago a family was defined as being father, mother and children. Some referred to this as the “cereal box family” as this was typically the type of family to be shown on television commercials for cereal. This stereotype is more correctly known as the nuclear family, however changes over the years has meant that this “nuclear family” is no longer a typical family type within the UK. This has proven difficult for sociologists to provide a clear definition or generalisation of the term ‘family’ and such difficulties will be explored throughout this essay, covering different viewpoints and their criticisms.
In 1949, George Peter Murdock conducted a ‘Social Structure’ study and found that a form of family existed in every known form of society. He argued that the family is a function for society and the family members and that the society and individual members could not survive without it. His view was that the nuclear family was best in conforming to this and that the nuclear family performed four essential functions:
• Sexual – understanding and/or expressing different sexualities • Reproductive – rearing children in stable conditions • Economic – providing food and shelter for family members • Educational / Socialisation – teaching sociably acceptable behaviour
Murdock strongly linked the nuclear family with society whereby having an interrelationship between family and other social institutions had benefits to the society. He proposed that family prepares children for adult working life and surviving economy, thus linking the family with society and the nuclear family being the best type of family to pursue this. This is otherwise known as the ‘functionalist view’.
Talcott Parsons (1955) supported this theory in suggesting that the family, no matter how specialised it became, had two functions:
• Primary socialisation for children
• Stabilisation of human personalities
Parsons suggested that the nuclear family was best to perform and maintain these functions. Having a spouse and children provides security and release thus applying less pressure to the individual and the threat of stability to the society. Functionalists’ have very biased views on the nuclear family and they believe that it is unlikely that any society will find an adequate substitute to take over the functions of the nuclear family.
The functionalist views are not without their criticisms though. Some of these being that the views are generally out of date. Being that it was initially derived in the 50’s and at this time few women worked and were stay at home mums, leaving the father to be the sole breadwinner of the family. This provided the mother with more time at home to cook and clean, however in today’s climate the mother is working just as many hours as the father and in some cases, the father providing or taking on greater responsibilities regarding childcare. Furthermore, this ignored the exploitation of women and many attributes to the family of which she is contributing i.e. her responsibility to maintain the housework, constant childcare undermining her position in paid employment due to such things as preparing meals school runs and looking after the family when members become ill. There is also a ‘darker side of life’ which Parsons and Murdock fail to bring to attention. They both portray a very simple and happy way of family life which downplays such conflicts as child abuse, and violence towards women, which wholly has a very strong affect against children and the family. Leach (1967) suggested that the nuclear family has become so self involved and detached from the wider community that in effect, causes an inward-looking institution leading to emotional stress. This then has an effect against...
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