Parson's structural functionalism and the family

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This essay aims to evaluate Parson’s structural functionalist approach to the study of the family. I shall begin by identifying the complexities that surround the study and theorization of ‘the family’. I shall then move on to explaining Parson’s structural functionalist approach and its application to ‘the family’. The assumptions made by Parson’s will be evaluated using both critiques and supporting arguments. To conclude this essay, the contributions that Parsons has made with his structural functionalist approach to the study of the family will be assessed. There are many weaknesses and criticisms to Parson’s approach, as shall become more apparent; however, he has also made contributions which will be explored. This essay will conclude with the view that an amendment of Parson’s structural functional approach would be more beneficial than disregarding it.

     It is essential to acknowledge the difficulties posed when theorizing ‘the family’ before continuing. Bernardes(1985),Denzin (1987) and Rapoport (1989) state that “..the dominant tendency in the sociology of the family- to seek theoretical integration through one coherent model of a specifically modern type of family – has been severely criticised” (Cheal, 1999, pg.56). There is the problem, in sociology and social theory when it comes to the study of ‘family’. There is a desire to study ‘the family’, without knowledge of what it actually is. Trost (1990) makes the conclusion that ‘Evidently no one “Knows” what a family is: our perspectives vary to such a degree that to claim to know what a family is shows lack of knowledge’(ibid:p.442) (Cheal,1999,p.61). There is no universally accepted definition of the term. Bernardes (1997) notes that family life is bound to who were believe ourselves to be and how we fit into the social structures and what our beliefs are about others (pg.28-29). The topic ‘family’ is also embedded in everyday language, emotions, identities, loaded with many interpretations and definitions, making it almost impossible to study.  Furthermore, Cheal (1997) makes a very relevant and important claim that they are bound to value judgements. He stresses how ‘obvious’ or  ‘true’ the idea of ‘the family’ is and this results in those studying family to fail to realise that the adoption of the family model involves adopting a clear value stance which he claims tend to be racist, sexist , heterosexualist and ableist (Bernardes,1997,pg.30). We can thus see the complications that attempting to study such an ambiguous topic pose and how the results of the attempts to study ‘the family’ could be problematic.

    The main focus of this essay is to evaluate Parson’s structural functionalist approach to the study of ‘the family’. Parson’s takes a modernist point of view accompanied by the standardization of family role behaviour. The transformation of institutions is argued to control and shape social life while changing it also, resulting in intensely regulated social behaviour (Cheal,1999,pg.57).  Parson’s approach is macro-sociological, meaning that the social structures/ society are perceived as having control over individuals. Individuals are claimed to be products of the social structures and social influences such as their friends and family, their exposure to the mass media etc. Parson’s structural functionalist approach makes use of an organic analogy in order to provide an explanation of the operation of society and the possibility of social order. Both, society and the human body consist of different parts that carry out functions, co-operating in order to ensure the functioning of the ‘whole’. If one part of the body is injured, adjustments are required to restore the body back to equilibrium. Likewise, the social structures and institutions are parts of the social system which strive to maintain equilibrium (Gelles,1995,p.40).The main focus is on meeting the needs of the system. On a more micro-sociological level, Parson’s identifies ‘roles’ and ‘statuses’. A status is the position one holds in society which is ascribed within a family. Roles are the functions that are carried out by one according to their status. The needs of society are met through individuals carrying out the roles that their status requires of them (Gelles,1995,p.40).

        In his structural functionalist approach to the study of the family, Parsons’ objective was to map out the historical development of ‘the family’ and explain the increasing dominance of nuclear family forms.  Parsons argues that it was industrialisation in the 19th century that caused the rise of the nuclear family.  He makes a distinction between pre-industrial and industrial society, claiming that they have different needs and thus also a consequent family structure to meet those needs. The extended families consisted of three generations living together or very close by. Extended families met the needs of the ‘pre-industrial’ society as a majority of the functions were carried out in the home, commonly family farms were owned, making it an economic unit in which all the family members worked together to provide for their collective needs.

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     Parsons identifies three fundamental changes caused by the industrial revolution. The first was the economy’s need for a more geographically mobile workforce, due to the division made between the home and paid labour, (work was now carried out in factories). Moreover, these factories were also placed in various cities and countries.  This divide resulted in the isolation and decreased dependence of individuals and families on their relatives making the nuclear family unit stronger and more self sufficient. At this point any ties made with the wider family were out of choice not obligation. Furthermore, a majority of the ...

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