Functionalism and the Family Summary

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Functionalism and “the” Family: A Summary

For an analysis of a very good examination answer by examiner Kate Flatley – Click Here

For podcast on Functionalism [and other Sociological Perspectives] from Steve Bassett [Park Sociology]  NEW Link September 2017 – Click Here

For podcast on Functionalism, Marxism and the Family from Esher Sociology  NEW Link September 2017 – Click Here

For podcast on Functionalism and the Family from Precooked Sociology New link added October 2016 – Click Here

Click here for Introducing Families and Households NEW document added October 1st 2012 – Click Here

For introductory PowerPoint on G. P. Murdock , Functionalism and the Family. NEW document added October 8th 2012 – Click Here To Download

For assignment  on comparison of   Functionalist and Marxist analyses  of  socialisation within “the” family – Click Here 


For assignment on comparison of Functionalist – Click Here (create exercisefamperspect page and link back)

Marxist and Feminist perspectives on Families and Households – Click Here (create exercisefamperspect page as above and link back)

For Feminism and “the” Family – Click Here (create page and link back)

For Marxism and “the” Family – Click Here (vreate page and link back)

For the New Right and  “the” Family – Click Here (create page and link back)

Document Contents

  •   Introduction
  •   Functionalist Theories: Murdock; Parsons; Fletcher
  •   Historical Criticisms: Laslett; Anderson
  •   Anthropology and Radical Psychiatry : Leach, Laing, Cooper
  •   Feminism
  •   Marxism and Marxist Feminism
  •   Social Action Theory
  •   The New Right
  •   Postmodernism
  •   Conclusions


Functionalism was the dominant branch of western Sociology until the 1960s since when it has been increasingly criticised by sociologists favouring different sociological perspectives. Functionalists argue that societies consist of inter-related social institutions such as schools, mass media, political systems, the Church and the family each of which contribute positively to the maintenance of stability of society as a whole. That is: these institutions are said to be functional for societies as a whole.. Broadly speaking it is assumed by functionalists that societies operate in the interests of all of their members so that there is no reason for fundamental conflict in society. Instead there is a high degree of consensus that societies are organised efficiently and relatively fairly.

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 Afro- Caribbeans and increasingly common more generally and  of gay and lesbian families all suggest that the nuclear family is not in fact universal which in turn suggests that Functionalist theories of the family focus excessively on the nuclear family form and insufficiently on other family forms.

For some fairly detailed information about the Nayar which you can discuss with your teachers – Click Here

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:

  • industrialisation led to the gradual replacement of extended families by nuclear families because industrialisation demands greater geographical and social mobility. Geographical mobility is easier for nuclear families while if within extended families young adults achieve higher social status through social mobility than their parents this, according to Parsons would make for social tensions within the extended family which would be avoided if young married adults lived separately in their own nuclear family. Furthermore according to Parsons if industrial societies are to become  more efficient they must become increasingly meritocratic which means that employment prospects will be determined far less by family connections or nepotism whjch means that the strength of extended family ties is likely to decline.  [It is true that industrial societies are more meritocratic than non-industrial societies but the extent of meritocracy in industrial societies should certainly not be overstated.]
  • 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;
  • 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;
  • 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. as you will see when you study families and social policy later in the Families and Households module.

  Criticisms of Functionalist Theories of the Family

Functionalist theories of the family have been strongly criticised in several respects:

  1. by social historians such as Laslett and Anderson;
  2. by anthropologists and psychiatrists Leach, Laing and Cooper;
  3. by Feminist sociologists;
  4. by Marxist sociologists;
  5. by Social Action sociologists;
  6. by New Right theorists;
  7. by Postmodernist sociologists.
  •   The Historical studies of Peter Laslett and Michael Anderson


On the basis of an analysis of parish records between 1564 and 1821 Peter Laslett and his associates concluded that in pre-industrial England only 10% of households contained extra- nuclear kin—i.e. that the nuclear family was very common in pre-industrial England. People married later; they tended to set up independent households when they married and higher mortality rates meant that grandparents would often die relatively soon after grandchildren were born, all suggesting that extended families would be relatively uncommon at this time.

Laslett argued further that nuclear families were common in most of pre- industrial western Europe and that their existence helps to explain why the industrialisation process developed first there rather than say in eastern Europe, Russia and Japan where extended families were more common. Thus, for Laslett the nuclear family helped to bring about industrialisation rather than the other way around although of course many other factors help to explain the industrialisation process.

However, Laslett’s findings have been criticised. It has been claimed that even if most people lived in nuclear households, extended family ties may nevertheless have been strong. suggesting that there may have been many modified extended families in pre-industrial times.

Also according to Michael Anderson, extended families were common well into the mid 19th century. Anderson pointed out that on the basis of the 1851 Census of Preston 23% of households at this time contained extra-nuclear kin. Kinship networks could provide a base for newcomers to the city and in the absence of a developed Welfare State, they could provide support for ageing parents, the unemployed, the sick and the orphaned. Extended family residence would enable ageing grandparents to supervise children while parents worked; they would enable rent costs to be shared and extended family ties would also be useful in the search for work. Thus Anderson concluded that industrialisation actually strengthened extended family ties especially among the poor.

Further information on the continued existence of extended family ties in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries will be provided in a future document.

  • The Work of Edmund Leach, R.D.Laing and David Cooper.

In making comparisons between small scale , pre-industrial societies and large scale industrial ones, the anthropologist Edmund Leach claims that the decline of the extended family has isolated the nuclear family and placed emotional demands upon it which are unbearable. The inevitable result is conflict both within the nuclear family and within societies as a whole as the nuclear family creates barriers between it and the wider society breeding suspicion, fear and social conflict. Leach concludes, “Far from being the basis of the good society, the family with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets is the source of all our discontents.”

Rather similar arguments were  advanced by radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing (based on his studies of families in which at least one member has been described as schizophrenic) claiming that the nuclear family grievously restricts the process of self-development and “generates both an unthinking respect for authority and an us-them mentality which contributes to harmful and dangerous distinctions between Gentile and Jew and Black and White.”

David Cooper concludes (again from studies of families in which one member has been defined as schizophrenic) that the family inhibits the development of the self and conditions its members not to accept the shared norms and values of an harmonious society but to submit to the dictates of an authoritarian, repressive capitalist one. For Cooper, writing from a Marxist perspective, “The family prepares the individual for his/her induction into the role s/he is to play in an exploitative society: the role of endlessly obedient citizen.”


The studies of Leach, Laing and Cooper have, however, been criticised for several reasons which means that the conclusions of these studies should not be assumed to discredit the functionalist theories totally.

  1. Thus none of these theorists have conducted detailed fieldwork in industrial societies and Laing’s and Cooper’s research is based only on families where one member has been defined as schizophrenic.
  2. They do not attempt to relate the family to other aspects of the social structure. There is no consideration of  relationships between social class and family life for example.
  3. Laing may have underestimated the extent to which liberal attitudes also emerge in the family and illiberal attitudes derive from sources other than the family.
  4. In so far as these writers see society as “out of control” or even “gone mad”, this may colour their analysis of the family but the Functionalist analyses seems also to be influenced by what critics consider to be the Functionalists’ unrealistically optimistic perspective on contemporary capitalist societies and on the role of the nuclear family within such societies.

For a Times article on the actual life and times of R. D Laing – Click Here

In the following sections I shall introduce other perspectives on the family and show how they differ from the Functionalist perspective. In each case only summary information on each perspective is given and I hope to extend this information in further documents devoted to more detailed consideration and criticisms of each of the perspectives introduced here.

  • Feminist Criticisms of Functionalist Theories of the Family.

There are important divisions within feminism , most notably as between liberal, radical and Marxist feminism but all feminists are critical in various respects of functionalist theories of the family. Thus feminist argue that:

  1. gender differences in socialisation within the family [and elsewhere] operate to the disadvantage of females;
  2. that the traditional allocation of roles within the family reflects not the instrumental characteristics of males and females respectively but the existence of patriarchal power within the family;
  3. that in any case there is nothing “expressive” about many household tasks;
  4. that the traditional allocation of gender roles restricts female employment opportunities and prospects;
  5. that when women are employed outside the home this may nevertheless mean that they are obliged to undertake the so-called “triple shift” of employment, housework/childcare and emotion work;
  6. that patriarchal power ensures that major family decisions are taken by males rather than females;
  7. that the existence of “empty shell marriages”, high rates of divorce and considerable levels of domestic violence show that family relationships are often far less harmonious than is implied by functionalist theory

Although liberal feminists argue that many female disadvantages can be alleviated by sensitive education and gradual economic and social reform, this is not a view that would be accepted by radical and Marxist feminists. Radical feminists argue that societies in general and families in particular are deeply patriarchal, that patriarchy is based ultimately on male physical violence and that women’s interests are best served by the rejection of family life and ,indeed, rejection of relationships with men. Marxist feminists have accepted the general Marxist analysis of the family in which families support the continuation of the capitalist system in ways which result in the exploitation of women.

  • Marxist and Marxist Feminist Criticisms of Functionalist Theories of the Family.

In the Marxist view the family is a part of the superstructure of capitalist society which operates not in the interests of society and all of its members equally but in the interests of the capitalist system and of the capitalist class within that system. Marxists argue :

  1. that families produce and rear the next generation of children to become the next generation of labour power for the capitalist system at relatively low cost to that system;
  2. that family [in conjunction with other institutions of the superstructure] helps to socialise children to accept authority without question thereby preparing them to accept capitalist authority structures in the work place;
  3. that the existence of families as a unit of consumption helps to promote demand for the products of the capitalist system which helps to maintain and increase capitalist profit;
  4. that  families may provide emotional support and a focus for loyalty without which greater worker solidarity might eventually result in a challenge to the capitalist system as a whole.

Marxist Feminists have accepted the above general arguments and pointed to ways in which it is women specifically who are exploited in the capitalist family. They argue:

  1. that the traditional housewife/mother role imposes unfair burdens on women but that their apparent readiness to accept this role provides services to their husbands at low cost which means that male workers can be employed at lower wages than would otherwise be possible so that women are , in effect, subsidising the capitalist system;
  2. that it is women who are the main source within the family of emotional support and women who are the main victims of domestic abuse which may be caused ultimately [even if indirectly] by the frustrations generated by the capitalist system;
  3. that some women are especially likely to be members of a reserve army of labour because of their willingness to return without argument to purely domestic duties when their employment is terminated. Once again the existence of a reserve army of labour helps to protect capitalist profitability.
  • The New Right and Functionalist Theories of the Family.

According to New Right theorists it would be very beneficial to society as a whole and to its members if in reality the nuclear family remained the dominant family form and if it fulfilled its functions more or less as described in the functionalist theory of the family. Thus , New Right theorists argue that effective nuclear family units are necessary if the young are to be socialised to respect traditional sources of authority. They also tend to support a traditional allocation of gender roles while recognising also that a dynamic market economy may require an increasing proportion of married women to take up employment, all of which points to some ambiguity within the New Right theory of the family.

However , New Right theorists argue that in practice, as a result of increasing divorce, cohabitation, increasing numbers of lone parent families and the growth of homosexuality the nuclear family is far less secure nowadays than is implied in the functionalist theories of the 1950s and 60s. Also these alternative family forms may impose additional financial costs upon the state and undermine the stability of society as a whole ,for example via the creation of a welfare dependent, criminal underclass or via the implication that heterosexual and homosexual relationships are equally worthy of respect.

Governments should therefore introduce policies which help to reverse the decline of the nuclear family. New Right theories of the family have themselves been heavily criticised from other sociological perspectives.

  • Social Action Sociologists’ Criticisms of Functionalism

Social Action theorists argue that Functionalism is a structural consensus theory and that in general terms as a structural theory it therefore overstates the relative influence of social structure on individual behaviour and understates the freedom of individuals to decide upon their own behaviour for themselves. In relation to the family social action theorists would argue that the diversity of family structures [nuclear and based on marriage, nuclear and based on cohabitation, extended, lone parent and single sex families based upon civil partnership] and of behaviour within families [relatively asymmetrical or symmetrical etc.] shows that Functionalist theories of the family are “over-deterministic” and indeed, social action theorists would make similar criticisms of Marxist and Feminist theories of the family.

  • Postmodern Criticisms of Functionalism

Postmodern sociologists are critical of all “modern” sociological perspectives including Functionalism, Marxism, Feminism and Social Action Sociology which they describe as “metanarratives” or “grand stories” whose scientific validity has been grossly overstated by their supporters. Postmodernists argue also that ,in conditions of postmodernity, traditional processes of socialisation have become much weaker, thus allowing individuals far greater freedom in the construction of their own identities. Postmodernists , therefore are likely to deny that individuals are easily indoctrinated to accept Functionalist norms and values [or patriarchal values as suggested by feminists or a ruling class ideology as suggested by Marxists.] Also the increasing diversity of family life and personal relationships suggests to Postmodernists that individuals are far less likely to choose to live in nuclear families and to adopt traditional gender roles than is suggested in Functionalist theories of the family.

  • Conclusions

Functionalist sociologists have claimed optimistically that modern capitalist societies are essentially democratic, meritocratic and based upon consensus and that nuclear families contribute both to the happiness of their individual members and to the continued stability of societies as a whole , for example via the socialisation of the young and the stabilisation in Parsons’ variant of the theory.

However Functionalist theories have also been heavily criticised and even if we do not accept these criticisms in every single respect it does seem fair to conclude that Functionalists have overstated the extent of consensus in society and the significance of nuclear families relative to other family forms and understated the widespread existence of asymmetrical, patriarchal relationships within many nuclear families and the extent to which the existence of nuclear families helps to sustain capitalist and/or patriarchal power structures in the wider society.

I have tried in the above notes to introduce the main criticisms of Functionalist theories of the family which have been suggested in other perspectives. It  will now necessary to investigate the strengths and weaknesses of these other perspectives in more detail.