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The Relationship of the Family to Social Structure


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Family and Social Structure: Functionalist perspectives


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[This article is part of a longer article. Download the whole article in its original format.] George Murdock in his study of 250 societies also identifies four basic functions of the family (a) sexual; (b) reproductive; (c) economic and (d) educational. Regarding the sexual function, marriage legitimates sexual relations between a man and a woman, and limits the extent to which sexual relations can take place outside the bond. He argues that the sexual function serves to stabilize society by containing sexual impulses to legitimate relationships. Murdock claims that the economic function is "most readily and satisfactorily achieved by persons living together". He is very much in favour of the continuing existence of the family, claiming that "No society has succeeded in finding an adequate substitute for the nuclear family, to which it might transfer these functions. It is highly doubtful whether any society will ever succeed in such an attempt." In reply to Murdock it could be said that (a) he has not seriously considered whether some other form of social unit could act as an alternative to the family; (b) he idealises the family and glosses over its defects presenting it as a harmonious institution. Talcott Parsons is another functionalist. According to his analysis the two basic functions of the family are (a) "the primary socialization of children" and (b) the "stablilization of adult personalities of the population of society". Primary socialization is the process taking place during the early years of childhood when children are taught norms and social roles within the family; secondary socialization occurs subsequently when the child is influenced by other agencies such as school and peer groups. Primary socialization involves (a) the internalization of society's culture and (b) the structuring of the personality. According to Parsons only the family can effectively carry out these two functions. However, Parsons is also criticized for creating an idealized picture of the family which papers over the signs of maladjustment. His interpretation of the family is based on observations of American middle-class families, and he also does not consider alternatives to the family. Nonetheless, his views are supported by other sociologists. Brigitte and Peter Berger in The War Over the Family argue that, whilst the family is not ideal, only the "bourgeois family" can effectively meet the demands of a modern society. They trace the origin of the bourgeois family to the middle-classes of the nineteenth century Europe, especially those of Germany and Britain. At this time the family became child-centred, developed strong moral codes, placed an emphasis on economic success and became religious. As mortality rates fell the child-centred character of the family increased. The benefits of the bourgeois family are (a) children learn to respect their parents; (b) yet they also develop as individuals. However, a bourgeois family can only develop where private property also develops. They argue that "Only if the child has a sense of what is properly his can he share that property with others; in the absence of private property of any sort, there can be no deliberate acts of sharing." They try to demonstrate that alternatives to the family do not perform these functions. In a kibbutz collective child-rearing results in people who lack individualism and are excessively conformist and easily dominated by society. The bourgeois family creates individuals that can take an independent stand against society even though they respect the basic values of society.
Contents of
The Relationship of the Family to Social Structure

1 The family as a universal social institution
2 Family and Social Structure: Functionalist perspectives
3 Family and Social Structure: Critical Views
4 Family and Social Structure: Marxist perspectives
5 Family and Social Structure: Feminist perspectives
6 Family and Social Structure: The Changing Functions of the Family

Related articles: (1) Introduction to Patriarchy and Gender Roles, (2) The Relationship of the Family to Social Structure