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Examine the contribution of functionalist explanations towards an understanding of the family

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JOHN SMYTH SOCIOLOGY ESSAY (1500 words) EXAMINE THE CONTRIBUTION OF FUNCTIONALIST EXPLANATIONS TO AN UNDERSTANDING OF THE FAMILY Functionalists believe that the family is a positive institution and view the ideal modern family as being the Nuclear Family. The nuclear family is described by Giddens (1989, p385) as a family 'which consists of two adults living together in a household with their own or adopted children'. Abercrombie et al (2006 p168) defines the nuclear family as 'Social units comprising a man and a woman living together with their children' Regardless of individuals definitions of what the nuclear family is, it is perceived as a family consisting of a father, mother and their children.The functionalist view (most popular in the 1960's) of the nuclear family comprises of a breadwinner husband and dependant wife and children - the 'cereal packet family' (Leach 1968) - this view of the family is also taken by sociologists like Murdock and Parsons. Functionalists take a consensus approach towards society and believe social institutions such as a family play an important part - i.e. the family makes a positive contribution towards society. Although Murdock and Parsons put across are similar themes - they believe that a nuclear family is best suited for a healthy society. Functionalists see the family as essential to the smooth running of society, therefore they emphasise the positive role of the family. Of all the views of the family the functionalists view is the most positive, whereas feminist and Marxist views and definition of the family are dissimilar ...read more.


He sees the family as having 9 functions - 3 essential and 6 non-essential. The 3 Essential functions were - Stable satisfaction of sexual needs, Production and rearing of children (the family structure provides a platform for the bearing and raising of children) and Provision of a home (provides physical shelter/serves as the main point of family existence). By regulation of sexual needs Fletcher is stating the family is a primary institution for the provision of love, care and emotional support for both adults/children and provides a sense of belonging and serves to clearly-define role relationships between men and women. The 6 non-essential functions were - Government (voting for government, strong views from senior family members) Economic (families working, paying taxes, consumption/shopping etc) Education, (encouraging family members to get educated, teaching right and wrong), Health, (both physical and mental)Religious (first exposure to religion and its ideas) and Recreation (meaning sport/games, fun activities). Fletcher sees these non-essential functions as providing a link with the wider social world. Young and Willmott are functionalists who after conducting studies suggested the family had gone through 4 stages of evolution. The Families at each stage were; The Pre-Industrial family, The Early Industrial Family, The Symmetrical Family and The Ay-Symmetrical family. In The Pre-Industrial family members worked together and unlike today home and work were not separated. This family ceased to exist as a result of the Industrial Revolution, but continued well into the nineteenth century. With The Early Industrial Family, men were drawn into industrial work as women did domestic duties. ...read more.


Murdock and Parsons have very good studies of the family from the 1950's and 60's. However the failure to point out negative aspects - the fact that families have minor conflicts and break ups and acknowledge other types of families and their contribution to society makes functionalist ideas one-sided. Critics claim they create a picture that is possibly too harmonious for a nuclear family whilst ignoring family diversity - e.g. cohabited couples or single parents. Family diversity is not mentioned by functionalists as they see the nuclear family as the only family that contributes to society. What has emerged over time helping to highlight family diversity is social change - rather than having one type of family we now find there are families and households from all different backgrounds - same sex marriages, lone parent families, mixed marriages (different race/religion/culture,etc). Households now vary considerably - today we have groups of singletons, student digs, households where extended family live (step brothers/sisters/parents etc) and normal rented households with people choosing to live with flat mates (people even move in with strangers) from completely different backgrounds. With more human and civil rights, people today have much more freedom to make their own decisions, whereas in years gone by people felt a considerable amount of (In some cultures enormous) pressure to conform to their particular religion/culture or that of their families. Although in some cultures (e.g., Indian families) the pressure of following tradition still exists, this new found freedom has contributed to help making diverse families more acceptable and the norm. ...read more.

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Response to the question

This question has been answered well. The writer has a sound understanding of Functionalism, which is evident as the essay refers to many Functionalist sociologists (Parsons, Fletcher, Murdock). As well as using external criticisms from other groups within sociology such ...

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Response to the question

This question has been answered well. The writer has a sound understanding of Functionalism, which is evident as the essay refers to many Functionalist sociologists (Parsons, Fletcher, Murdock). As well as using external criticisms from other groups within sociology such as feminism, the writer provides internal criticisms. For example: “Whilst Fletcher (1966) agrees Murdock and Parsons that the nuclear family is the normal family, he disagrees with Parsons that the social functions in the family have decreased over time”. The fact that the writer reflects on differences within Functionalist sociology, really shows that they understand the main sociological theory that the question is addressing. The introduction and the conclusion are of very high standards – they are detailed, and not just the brief few lines that most candidates tend to write.

Level of analysis

The essay begins with: “Functionalists believe that the family is a positive institution and view the ideal modern family as being the Nuclear Family. The nuclear family is described by Giddens (1989, p385) as…” which wrongly seems to imply that Giddens is a Functionalist. He is in fact a late modernist. I feel that this would not diminish the overall grade awarded to this otherwise academically sound essay, but it’s just these little things that distinguish the top candidates from the rest. However I like the candidate’s use of dates as it shows how theories have changed and developed over time.
The writer explains sociological theory in detail, which shows the great extent of their knowledge. Marxism and feminism are also well explained as a Functionalist critique, which is impressive. Marxist and feminist key terms are used well in context, “capitalist” and “patriarchy”, as well as Functionalist key concepts such as “the stabilisation of adult personalities”. This clearly shows that they have a good knowledge of sociology as a whole.
The use of a bibliography suggests that the writer has thought very carefully about their essay, and has therefore documented where their evidence has come from for future reference (obviously in examination conditions this isn’t necessary). It shows the examiner that they have an awareness of other people’s work – they are not just copying or plagiarising. Instead they are using other people’s work, in their essay, to come to an informed conclusion.

Quality of writing

There are random uses of capital letters for certain words in this essay, “Socialisation” and “Nuclear” which is inaccurate. I think the writer just feels that these terms are crucially important to the essay, and so feels the need to differentiate them somehow. However this importance could be best portrayed by using quotation marks instead.
Murdock is spelled incorrectly as “Murdoch” and Willmott as “Millmott” which inclines me to think that the writer could and should have taken time to proof read their writing. On the whole though, spelling, punctuation and grammar are fair.

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Reviewed by cwhite 12/09/2012

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