Assess the contribution of functionalism to our understanding of the family.
Initially we have to consider do functionalists really contribute to our understanding family, additionally if they do how valuable is their perspective and does it still reflect on contemporary society. Functionalists view the family as an institution, which improves society by obtaining equilibrium and social order and stability; they also feel the family should not be studied in isolation but in terms of its contribution to the wider society. Therefore they feel the family does not benefit the individual, but the family is beneficial to the whole of society, in other words they are not too concerned of the individual as they opt to look at the macro-perspective. For instance the family prepares children to become adult workers in various ways for example by passing down their norms and values. Conversely there is the interpretive and symbolic interactionists approach that oppose the views of functionalists and feel the family should be studied in isolation and you should look at the individual, as they tend to advocate the micro-perspective of society. Nevertheless a group who shares the same views, as functionalists, are the New Right. These views being that the stability of the family is an important and integral ingredient for harmony and equilibrium of society. New Right and functionalists felt that the family was the ‘heart’ of society and both views wanted society to return to ‘the days’ where there was a true, traditional nuclear family. New Right considered any type of family that wasn’t nuclear as deviant. Thus it could be assumed that the contribution of functionalists is limited and does not significantly aid our understanding, as many of us acknowledge there are alternative family structures such as single-parent families or gay and lesbian families. Additionally in the period of the modernity there were other views of society that began to establish themselves and many that were contradicting functionalism such as feminists, that felt functionalists do not look at the negative aspects and only concentrate on the positive region. Nevertheless, it can be argued that functionalism is the oldest and most widely accepted view in sociology, therefore, its contribution to our understanding of the family should be taken into account, but with some caution.
Functionalists view the family as an institution that is present in society to maintain social order and stability. Additionally it is assumed that society has certain functional prerequisites or basic needs that must be met if it is to survive and operate efficiently, and according to functionalists the family needs to be examined in terms of the degree to which it meets these functional prerequisites. The functionalist perspective establishes the different functions of the family and this was achieved through two sociologists George Peter Murdock and Talcott Parsons. Firstly, Murdock studied 250 societies, after which he argued that the family performs four basic functions in all societies that he termed the sexual, reproductive, economic and educational. These functions are essential for social life since without sexual and reproductive functions there would be no continuation of society and without economic function families would for instance be unable to provide for each other, for example the provision and preparation of food, meaning life would cease, and without education a term Murdock uses for socialisation there would be no culture. Human society without culture could not function. Additionally Murdock felt the family is a universal institution implicating that it exists in one form or another in all societies. He felt a family exists where adults of both sexes are involved in a socially approved relationship and have one or more children, all of whom live together. Therefore he sees the nuclear family as the basic unit around which all family systems are organised. However he notes in many societies the nuclear family may be apart of a larger kinship group, i.e. a polygamous family, where there is polygyny, where a husband has more than one wife and polyandry, where a wife has more then one husband, or an extended family that consists of three generations living together as a family unit e.g. grandparents, parents, and children. Additionally, Murdock felt that the family is an institution, which performs primary socialisation the teaching of norms and values to children initially by parents. By teaching norms and values to children, Murdock felt the family maintains social solidarity within society, hence improving society.