In this essay, I will analyze and critique the role of the family as a social institution from a functionalist perspective.
Functionalists believe that society is a system made up of different parts, all of which depend on each other. Within this system, they see the family as a particularly important institution and a crucial part of socializing the young so that they may grow up and form the type of ideal family that creates stability and order in society. This ideal family is known as the ‘cornflake packet’ or the ‘nuclear family’. This is the type of stereotypical ideal family that was dominant throughout the 40s and 50s, often comprising a hard-working father, a stay-at-home mother, and children who attend school. Functionalists like to see things within this ideology such as regular marital sex, a father who earns a wage and contributes to the economy, and a mother who takes on the emotional burdens within that family. Family within functionalism is largely based on the notion of 'romantic love'. This means two people meeting, falling in love, getting married, and having children. Within functionalism, this type of family is essential for society to run smoothly and harmoniously.
George Murdoch, an American anthropologist argued that the nuclear family was a universal feature of all human societies. Murdoch suggested there are four essential functions of the nuclear family. Firstly, the stable satisfaction of sex desire, that is, in a marriage, sex between husband and wife happens regularly. Secondly, reproduction, which is essential for the creation of the next generation. Thirdly, socialization and teaching of basic norms and values to the children. And lastly, meeting the economic needs of family members.
Similarly, Talcott Parsons has a historical perspective on the evolution of the nuclear family. His ‘functional fit theory’ states that as society changes, so does the type of family that will fit that society, as well as the functions it performs. This has much to do with industrialization. In preindustrial society, the family would also include the extended family. This would include parents, grandparents, and children, sometimes even aunts and uncles, all living under the same roof. However similarly to Murdoch, Parsons named two essential functions of the family. He believed firstly in primary socialization. This states that the nuclear family is still responsible for teaching the children the norms and values desirable in society, even though we don’t see the intended family involved as much in industrialized society. Secondly, the stabilization of adult personalities. This refers to the emotional security that is achieved within the marital relationship and family home. Parsons also theorized that working in industrialized society is now very stressful, and your family is where you should be able to return and be de-stressed and comforted (the warm bath theory).
Within functionalism we also see that gender roles are generally biologically enforced, therefore a father would hope his son would grow up and follow in his footsteps and become a ‘provider’, while a mother would hope her daughter would grow up, marry and have children. This contributes to creating social order and control, without which functionalists believe there will be instability in society. Following on from this, functionalists do not entertain the idea of same-sex marriages as this type of family cannot contribute to a balanced society the way it should. Children cannot be produced naturally, there can be no main wage earner, and no one person assigned to the role of providing emotional stability. This also applies to single-parent families. Functionalists would argue that they cannot properly fulfill the function of socialization in a balanced society.
To assume everybody should grow up, meet someone, fall in love, get married, and have children to contribute to a well-structured society, as functionalists would like, is very ideological. Not everyone can follow this path, and what’s more, not everybody wants to. The world has evolved and so has the type of relationships that create the types of non-traditional families we see now. However, these families are still achieving and contributing to society and the economy. There are so many more options now for women in particular, meaning mothers can work and many modern couples work and share the household responsibilities, creating gender fluidity both at work and at home. Within any society, there will always be opposing views on what constitutes the perfect family. However, we should have and do have the freedom now to create whichever type of family we want to, regardless of the one we are raised in. It is important to celebrate the choices we now have while honoring the traditional type of families that others still choose. Any kind of evolution within society brings us all more freedom to not only choose between functionalist and other views of what constitutes the perfect family but the power to combine ideas in this day and age and essentially make the family the institution that we feel most comfortable with.