Structural Functionalism, Marxism, “the” Family and Socialisation

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Structural Functionalism, Marxism, “the” Family and Socialisation

In this document I provide summary information on Structural Functionalist and Marxist approaches to the study of “the” family followed by an exercise comparing Structural Functionalist and Marxist approaches to the analysis of the socialisation process as it operates in “the” family.

For further information on Structural Functionalist approaches Click Here

For more information on Marxist approaches – Click Here 

The main Functionalist theorists of the family are G P Murdock and Talcott Parsons. Murdock argued on the basis of his studies that the nuclear family was a universal social institution and that it existed universally because it fulfilled four basic functions for society : the sexual, reproductive, economic and education functions. Other non-Functionalist sociologists have argued, however, that the existence of the Nayar, the single matrifocal families common among Afr0 Caribbeans and increasingly common more generally and the small number of gay and lesbian families are suggest that the nuclear family is not in fact universal.

The Functionalist perspective on the family has been further developed by Talcott Parsons whose theories focus heavily on nuclear, heterosexual families to the exclusion of other family forms. The main aspects of Parsons’ theory as developed in the USA in the 1950s were as follows:

  1. industrialisation led to the gradual replacement of extended families by nuclear families because industrialisation demands greater geographical and social mobility;

  2. industrialisation leads also to processes of structural differentiation which implies that new more specialised social institutions such as factories, schools and hospitals develop to take over some of the functions previously performed by families;

  3. this means therefore that the nuclear family loses some of its functions but it remains crucial in relation to the two functions which it does retain: the socialisation of the young and the stabilisation of adult personalities;

  4. within nuclear families roles are allocated between husbands and wives in accordance with the assumed instrumental characteristics of males[ which makes them more suited to paid employment outside of the home] and the assumed expressive characteristics of females [which makes them more suited to childcare and domestic work.]

Ronald Fletcher also analyses the family from a Functionalist perspective but he denies that the modern nuclear family has lost functions to the extent suggested by Talcott Parsons. Thus Fletcher argues that even if the family is no longer a unit of production , it is a unit of consumption which can be appealed to by advertisers keen to sell a wide range of household appliances so as to maintain profits. Also parents do supplement school education by providing advice and help more effectively than in the past; greater understanding of diet and exercise may mean that the family can play a greater role in health maintenance; and also given the limitations of the Welfare State, the family, and especially women within the family may continue to play a major role in the care of elderly relatives some of whom may not wish to enter old peoples homes. The Community Care initiatives of Conservative Governments [1979-97] may have increased family responsibilities in this respect.

  • Marxism and The Family

The main elements of the Marxist approach to the analysis of the family may be listed as follows.

  1. Whereas according to Functionalists the socialisation process as it operates within the family (and elsewhere)  is seen as encouraging conformity with desirable norms and values which contribute to overall social stability, according to Marxists the socialisation process in the family and elsewhere results in the transmission of a ruling class ideology whereby individuals are deceived into accepting the capitalist system and the dominance of the capitalist class more or less without question. Especially children are encouraged to accept parental authority more or less without question in the family which prepares them to accept authority more or less without question in the work place in later life.
  2. The growth of the home centred privatised family encourages concentration on family concerns, relatively orthodox interests and relatively, moderate mainstream political views at the expense of wider  loyalty to ones work mates  and more active and radical engagement with political issues which thereby reduces the likelihood of meaningful political action to challenge the capitalist system.
  3. Insofar as the family operates as a unit of consumption it can be targeted by advertisers to encourage the increasing purchase of goods and services upon which the continuing profitability of capitalist industries depends.
  4. It has been argued by some Feminists in criticism of Marxism that it concentrates excessively on   exploitation of the working class and not enough on the exploitation of women.
  5. However Marxist Feminists do give more attention to the exploitation of women within the family. For example  the family produces labour at low cost to the capitalist system in that wives are not paid directly for bearing the children or for their upkeep.
  6. Also wives also provide a range of services for their husbands at far less than their market value. If wives were paid fair wages for all of these services, employed husbands would also have to be paid much more which would reduce the profitability of capitalism.
  7. Wives may also absorb the frustrations of their husbands which otherwise might be turned against the capitalist system. Marxists argue that it is the frustrations of working in the capitalist system which are the main, even if indirect cause of domestic violence.
  8. Since many women see themselves as mainly housewives if they are actually in paid employment and become unemployed they are often more prepared to return to their housewife role without criticism. According to Marxists they are a part of a Reserve Army of Labour which can be hired when demand for goods and services is high  and work is plentiful but dismissed relatively easily when economies fall into economic recession. The capitalist system is strengthened by this flexibility to hire and dismiss workers as economic circumstances change.
  • Structural Functionalism, Marxism, “the” Family and Socialisation: An Exercise

Let us use the following exercise to illustrate the differing approaches of Structural Functionalists and Marxists to the socialisation process as it operates in the family.

[a] According to Structural Functionalists capitalism  is: democratic, economically efficient, unequal but fair and meritocratic. Because the capitalist system works well in the interests of all of its members there will limited conflict in society and a consensus that the capitalist system is working well and should be continued in the future. To promote the continuation of capitalism individuals will be socialised in the family and elsewhere to accept norms and values which will promote the continued existence of capitalism which , as stated is beneficial to all.

[b] According to Marxists capitalism  is  : dominated both economically  by the Bourgeoisie and at the expense of the exploited proletariat; grossly unequal as a result of which many members of the proletariat live a rotten existence with little chance to develop their potential; dominated politically by the Bourgeoisie whose political influence is hidden by the “sham institutions of a pretend democracy”. In such a situation you might expect the Proletariat to rise up in revolt but they do not do so partly because they are socialised to accept not a set of norms and values  which operates to their own advantage but a ruling class ideology which is a set of ideas which prevents the proletariat from realising the causes of their exploitation and encourages them to accept the very capitalist system which is actually the source of their discontents.

Assignment:  Complete the following table. [The sections marked ** are already “complete” although you might like to extend them further.]


Aspects of Family Socialisation

Implications for Individual and Society

For Talcott Parsons the key functions of the nuclear family are the socialisation of the young and the stabilisation of adult personalities. Children are socialised to accept the authority of the parents and to accept the key values and norms of their society. For Functionalists this means that children begin to learn that legitimate authority should be accepted in school and workplace which will enhance learning capacity and economic efficiency.       Marxists believe that when children are socialised to accept authority this can have adverse consequences for the individual in later life because…… 


The Functionalist Talcott Parsons argues that in the 1950s and 1960s the core values of US society are beliefs in meritocracy and individual achievement so that career progress is possible if sufficient efforts are made: this is the so-called “American Dream.” Children are socialised within the family to accept these values For Functionalists such values are functional for the system [i.e. contribute to the stability of the system] because….For Marxists it is quite simply a myth that US society is organised on meritocratic principles but belief in the myth inhibits criticism of the system. Also preoccupation with one’s own achievements detracts from consideration of the direction which society as a whole is taking.
The above point may be taken to imply that children will also be socialised to believe in the necessity of a competitive spirit and to measure their progress and even their happiness in terms of their income, wealth and possessions. For Functionalists such attitudes are beneficial becauseMarxists are critical of such attitudes because
** Children may be socialised to accept that family loyalties are more important than loyalties to other groups  i.e. they are socialised to believe that “blood is thicker than water” or that “charity begins at home.” For Functionalists such values strengthen the family and help it to fulfil its functions.For Marxists family solidarity may weaken social class solidarity and /or dissuade children from consideration of wider issues related to the inequities of capitalism.
According to Parsons traditional gender roles are appropriate because they are in accordance with the “instrumental” characteristics of men and  the “expressive” characteristics of females. Children are socialised in various ways to accept these traditional gender roles.Note that Feminist sociologists[ including Marxist Feminists} are especially critical of the Functionalist analysis of gender roles. For Functionalists this is beneficial for the individuals concerned and for the society as a whole because…Marxists and Feminists are critical of the Functionalist approach to gender roles socialisation because…..
Children may be socialised to accept the general political attitudes of their parents which are often [but not always] likely to involve some support for existing liberal democratic institutions, voting for one of the main political parties and a general absence of political radicalism For Functionalists such political views are beneficial because…Marxists are critical of such political attitudes because…
** The Family and the stabilisation of adult personalities. Functionalists argue that men and women can lead happy and fulfilling lives as a result of the deep personal relationships which are forged within families and, in addition,  family life helps to remove some of the tensions which arise out of work conditions and relationships.Marxists agree that family life can be happy and fulfilling but they emphasise that capitalism results in exploitation and alienation which are likely to create tensions within many families.  Although in some cases family life can make capitalism bearable , only the ending of capitalism can result in human emancipation.


  •   Final Question

How would you summarise the differences between the Functionalist and Marxist analysis of the socialisation process as it operates in families?

The socialisation process continues as children enter the education system and in a subsequent document I shall provide an exercise on Functionalist and Marxist approaches to the analysis of the socialisation process as it operates inside schools.