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Talcott Parsons' Functionalist View on the Nuclear Family: Critical Essay

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Talcott Parsons is an American sociologist who was born on December 13th, 1902, and died on May 8th, 1979 in Germany. He is known for his social action theory and structural functionalism. Parsons looked at society as institutions such as the economy, education, media, law, religion, and family that all work together to keep society going. As individuals we all have a part to play to shape society, we become a product of society from the influences around us. Parson believed that the family had two functions: primary socialization, which is during early childhood and provides the base for all later learning, and secondary socialization, which happens later in childhood when the children are socializing more with people who are not in their family home. He also believes that families help adults to behave in a way that goes in line with social norms and values and to be caring to each other in times of stress, this then ties in with Parsons' warm bath theory.

Parsons' theory is that the family is a social institution and that it meets the needs of society. Parsons believed that the nuclear family fitted well in the industrial economy with families having their own roles. With one adult being the ‘breadwinner’, which was more looked at as a male figure, and the other adult’s role, which would more likely be a female would be to take care of the children and make a ‘house a home’. In the family home, the children start to learn to socialize, so they get taught not to hit, to be kind, to share, to acceptable behavior, life skills and the family’s economic role would be to have a job to make sure the children have all they need. Parsons was a major figure in the structural-functionalist school of thought, he believed that in society we have the same common values and we have different cultures within a society, and this causes conflict which is normally caused by disagreement in thoughts and ways of life because of different beliefs within religion.

Parsons believed that education gave a sense of achievement and this helped individuals to have the skills to find a job in the industrial society because their status was chosen by ability not by birth Parson also believed that education was the right process for individuals to have a fair opportunity to succeed. Functionalists see society as consisting of many different parts that are linked and connected to keep the system going. Parsons' theory is that the nuclear family plays an important part in society by building environments for loving relationships with children and spouses and teaching the social norm and values that are then beneficial for society. Murdock believed that the family is the most important institution to do this. Parsons' nuclear family theory has a very positive look on the life of the family. The warm bath theory that Parsons came up with is the idea of a family man coming home from work and being greeted by a loving family where the woman takes care of the needs of the children and is ready to welcome the man home and take care of his needs so that he is refreshed before the next working day. Parsons argued that society can be understood by looking at the functions they do. Parsons said that the four functional requirements are adaption, goal attainment, integration, and pattern maintenance. Parsons believed that the needs of society would need to come before individual's needs, this is why he is believing that it is so important that the family and education have an important job to teach the social norms and values in the family and education institutions because this will help to hold the people together in value consensus.

Parsons' theory is like Murdock's (1949) theory that the family teaches children the social norms and values to keep society going. Parsons and Murdock both believe that the nuclear family is the perfect type of family. But not everyone will agree with this theory, as it paints a picture of a perfect family, and not everyone’s family would be like that. Functionalism is important because it looks at every aspect of society, how it functions, and how that helps society. For example, a child goes to school the get their education which the government provides this then covers the taxes, so it is an institution running itself to keep that part of society going. In the nuclear family, the work life and home life were kept separate, and the only thing that linked them together was the male family member who worked to provide for the family.

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In my childhood home growing up, my mother stayed at home while fostering, and my father went out to work, my mother took care of all of us and did all the house chores. My father was set in his way by being brought up by his grandparents who, like the nuclear family, the male went out to work and the wife stayed home and took care of the children and the house then provided a hot meal for the man to arrive home. This was common in my house and I thought it was normal. Until my mother had to go out to work because the times are changing, and children were growing up, my mother wanted to do something for herself because staying at home and looking after the children and the house all the time can make the women in the family feel like her purpose is not as great at the males. As times are changing, I feel the men are too. You also see examples of the nuclear family in adverts and they portray the perfect family which is misleading because there is no such thing as a perfect family.

Parsons' approach has been criticized by a group of Marxist writers in the 1970s who argued that it exploits the free domestic work of the housewife. It is just expected that the woman of the house takes on the role of bringing up the children and taking care of the house, even though the man of the house can only work so many hours because the women of the house can look after their children. Marxist writers argued this because domestic labor is important for the capitalist economy, only the men get paid not the women who are helping so the male can go to work the women’s contribution is free. Many women did get part-time jobs, but they were always paid lower and only called in when there was a shortage of workers and normally got cheap labor from the women’s work.

In this day and age, both parents must go out and work because of the cost to live, but a lot of women are still needed to take on the role of the car giver too. But I do think that there is more of a shared role and fathers are more hands-on and will help to clean, cook, and tend to the needs of the children.

Marxism and functionalism do have one thing in common and that is that they see society as a whole, they see society as more than just the individuals who live in it, and the social institutions and structures are important when looking at society.

Human behavior is complex, so sociology is known for having more than one theory or thought as it would be very difficult to find an approach to cover lots of different behaviors and outlooks. Having lots of different thoughts and theories provides a good range of ideas for social scientific work.

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Talcott Parsons’ Functionalist View on the Nuclear Family: Critical Essay. (2023, October 11). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“Talcott Parsons’ Functionalist View on the Nuclear Family: Critical Essay.” Edubirdie, 11 Oct. 2023,
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