Family can be defined as a group of people related by heredity, such as parents, children and siblings. It is sometimes broadened to include persons related by marriage or those living in the same household who are emotionally attached, interact regularly, and share concerns for the growth and development of the group and its individual members. There is legal definition of the family, but it varies depending on the jurisdiction and purpose for which it is defined. The family can have two basic types: nuclear and extended family. A nuclear family consist of adult husband, the wife, and their dependent children who are not of age, and the extended family is composed of the nuclear family and other relatives. Apart from the above mentioned types of family, there are other types such as the lone-parent families, which is one parent and his or her dependent children, the reconstituted family- when a new family is created after divorce through a second marriage and the empty nest family where the children of nuclear family has grown and left home.
Functionalism is a theory that sees society as a social system designed to meet the basic needs and to promote the survival of its members. According to them, the social system comprises of economic, political, kinship and culture and each of these has an established institution that plays a role in the running of society. Functionalists talk about society being like a human body. The organic analogy incorporates the ideas of a system to emphasise the inter-relatedness and mutual dependency of the major institutions of society. To them, the family is at the heart of society. They therefore, see the family as changing and responding to the needs of society. The systems approach has been used by functionalists to explain how social change occurs in society.
Talcott Parsons is one of the most important functionalist sociologists who studied family life in the 1950s. He referred to families as ‘personality factories’ which meant that, families produce children who share the basic norms and values of their society and were moulded in the image of the society. He saw the family as the basic and most vital institution in society whose irreducible function is the stabilisation of adult personalities, where the family gives the emotional support necessary to cope with the stress of everyday life, especially at younger age in order to develop a strong emotional bond and to grow and function well in the society. Once the personality is produced, adults need emotional security and a source of release from the stresses and strains of modern life. The emotional support of partners helps to provide this security and prevent stress from overwhelming the individual and threatening the stability of society. This is the warm bath theory: the husband arrives home from a stressful day at work and sinks into the ‘warm bath’ that his family (wife) provides.
Peter Murdock, (1949) is another functionalist who studied 250 societies and identified the functions of the family as sexual, where the family provides environment for regulating sexual desires. Families make sure that, such activities happens or takes place at the right location. The next function is reproduction, essential for survival of human society. Families ensure the survival of babies becoming adults. Babies are born vulnerable and incapable of taking care of themselves. It is therefore the duty of the family to train and equip them until such time that, they become adult and matured enough to face the world on their own. Another function of the family, according to Murdock, is to instil the norms, cultures and values of society into children and to make sure they are satisfactorily socialised. The family also provide economic support for other family members. This can happen in all sorts of forms like provision of child care and financial support in difficult times.
Murdock’s ideas were that, the nuclear family is so useful to society, inevitable and universal because it fulfils the essential functions. This is because he had found evidence of nuclear families in the 250 different societies he studied. He saw the nuclear family as the most efficient arrangement for performing all of the above vital functions and defined it as a universal human social grouping, either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex forms compounded. It exists as a distinct and strong functional group in every society.
However, they have been criticised by the way they see the family. Parsons picture is of a typical middle class USA family which may not be representative for most families. They have also been accused of idealising the family. Functionalist fails to consider the validity of other family structures and do not consider the diversity of family types. They ignore conflict, abuse, gender inequalities, and rising divorce rates within the family. Interpretative sociologists tend to argue that, functionalists concentrate too much on the importance of the family to society and ignore the importance and meanings of family that individuals perceive.
Feminists argue that the functionalist view of the expressive and instrumental roles as natural are in fact socially constructed. They also disagree with Murdoch’s idea that the nuclear family is natural, believing that there is no preferable family structure and encourage family diversity. They are of the opinion that, the functionalist view of the family encourages oppression of women.
Marxists argue that the functionalist view of the family views those family structures which support and benefit capitalism, and that, the nuclear family is part of the superstructure with the sole purpose of perpetuating a capitalist system.
They also believe that, the family socialises its members to accept the false consciousness that capitalism is good for all and that the government helps the people through healthcare. Marxism also rejects the functionalist idea that society is based on consensus; they would say that current society is based upon a conflict between the small powerful ruling class and the working majority.
Both Marxists and feminists disagree with the functionalist idea that each organ of society exists for the benefit of society itself and for its individual members, they believe that they exist for the benefit of the ruling class of either capitalists or men.
The next theoretical approach is the feminist. It is worth mentioning that, there are several types of feminism, included are, liberal, radical, socialist, and humanist but they all share in common the following about the family according to Barrie Thorne (1982). They see the society as male dominated, the family as an institution involving power relationships, men having different ideas of being in the family from women, the family being a source for the control of women, that there is no biological need for the family which is just a product of culture rather of nature, the ideologies of socialisation is based on gender, men gaining more from family life than women, and has also challenged the view of the family as being based on cooperation, shared interests and love.
Feminist see society as being patriarchal where things are made up of unequal structures of power between men and women. It practically means ‘rule of the father’ which is more to do with culture and makes us believe and think the family is one of the biological things we need naturally. Beechey (1986) is of the view that, people has taken the family for granted and the family requiring different things from men and women, and are also made to believe that, it is ideal to bring up children in a family setting where most of the work is done by women. Feminist think that, all this has contributed and continue to the male dominance in the family and society as a whole.
Benton regards the structure of the family life as the main cause of women’s oppression (housewife role), where the wife provides a relaxing environment for the male worker.
Things have changed in recent years in the family. Decision making in the home as pointed by Stephen Edgell (2000) shows that, in middle class homes, women have sole responsibility for financial decisions in areas as home decorating. Some things still need to be changed when we look at the following which has been pointed by the feminist as the dark side of the modern day family. The family contains a large amount of psychological harm for women, and still perform the majority of the housework. Evidence suggests that many women today have a dual burden of labour-home responsibilities as well as work. Majority of emotional work still remains a job for women and there are lots of instances of sexual and domestic abuse of women in the family.
The Marxist theory of the family was developed by the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and believed that, society was made up of two important parts, the economic base and the superstructure which includes the family. He describes the economic base as the most important because it influences the superstructure. The family will therefore reflect the values and concerns of the economic base.
The Marxist idea of the family was that, society was the family and believed early society was based on a primitive form of communism where there was no such thing as private property, no rules limiting sexual behaviour and promiscuity was normal. Their idea supports capitalism where the family forms part of the superstructure and passes on ideologies that justify inequality and enables the bourgeoisie to maintain control of the economic base. The family evolved in order to establish paternity to protect private property and its oppressive inhibited creativity. The family is therefore an ‘ideological conditioning device’. In short, the family was seen as an institution ‘when wives play their traditional roles as takers of shit, and often absorb their husband’s legitimate anger and frustration in a way which poses no challenge to the system’ (Ashley). Also, ‘the child is in fact primarily taught how to submit to the society but not how to survive’ (Cooper).
This theory has got the strength of exploring the role of oppressive ideologies and offers explanation for the development of the family. It also acknowledges the dark side of the family, links it to inequality in capitalist society, and offers critical approach.
It has however been criticised of ignoring family diversity, seeing the nuclear family as simply determined by the economy. It ignores how changes may come about due to legal and attitudinal changes and also ignores the patriarchal nature of society.
Considering the above discussion, it is true that men, the state, society and its institution have exercised enormous power over women by deciding how parenting and household responsibilities should be distributed? Who should have a right to household earnings and property? Who has the right to form a family? What defines a parent? How many parents can a child have? How many children can a parent have? Answering these already complex questions is additionally complicated by the existence of new technologies that make possible multiple ways of becoming a parent.
Below, is the examination of two main values that feminists have argued should guide the families we make, individual choice and equality. The traditional family has seen many changes in the last fifty years. In the decades following WW II increasing numbers of women entered the labour force. Divorce rates increased dramatically: the divorce rate in the 1980s was almost two and a half times what it had been in 1940. The development of the birth control pill has made it easier for women to avoid unwanted pregnancies and to plan when to have children. There are a growing number of single parent families, gay families, and extended families. By 1989, 25% of children were living in single parent households. Economic, technological and social factors have together made the full time-stay at home housewife and mother with a working husband a statistical minority. Laws governing families have also changed. Modern laws are more likely to view men and women as equals, who can be subjected to the authority of each other only with their own consent.
How far should the idea of women’s right in marriage, the institutions and society be taken? Some feminists have proposed contract model of marriage to allow any and all consenting adults to marry and to freely choose the terms of their association. These feminists would abolish state-defined marriage altogether and replace it with individual contracts drawn up by each couple wanting to marry (Fine man 1995, Weitzman 1985). Indeed, contracts would allow not only gay couples to marry but would also allow multiple marriages, as in the case of polygamy and determine the domestic division of labour. They argue that by moving marriage from an implicit status based, patriarchal arrangement to an explicit contract, women’s freedom and equality would be enhanced (Weitzman 1985).
Divorce has become more commonplace due to the fact that, feminism has altered the perception of what a wife might expect from a marriage, women have become more financially independent of their husbands, religious values have become less important and the process of getting a divorce has been made easier. The question therefore to ask, is this right and freedom we are fighting for good for the society? I will say too much of everything is bad and we need to be aware of the consequences of such changes upon family members and the structure of families. One example would be the growing number of reconstituted family. Another issue to consider is the decline of the nuclear family due to a greater acceptance within society of other types of family. For example cohabitation is no longer described as “living in sin.” Women are now more wiling to consider alternatives to raising children within the nuclear family, which is partly due to the impact of feminism; divorce is more socially acceptable than in previous generations and there is a greater willingness amongst many people to accept alternatives to the family.